Alumni weigh in on ongoing Flint water issues

Flint River

 

Published: 10/13/2016

BY SARA TALPOS

A year after the Flint water crisis broke, the environmental community is still asking what needs to be done and how to prevent similar crises in the future. Three SNRE alums discuss their work.

Michael Green (MS, ’93), Founder and C.E.O. of the non-profit Center for Environmental Health

This past February, Michael Green traveled to Capitol Hill to brief Congress and the public on the Flint water crisis and its implications for communities across the United States. Green is the C.E.O. of the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), which he founded in 1996 to raise awareness of the corporate use of toxic chemicals, including lead. For nearly a decade, the center systematically tested children’s products, finding lead in baby powder, candy, toys, lunch boxes, and bibs. In 2008, CEH drafted and helped pass a federal bill banning lead in children’s products.

But this doesn’t address what Green calls “relic lead”—the sort of lead that’s behind Flint’s water crisis.  The largest sources of lead exposure today are a legacy of products used before federal bans were enacted. These include lead in paint (banned for residential use in 1978) and lead in soil contaminated by lead gasoline (largely phased out in the 1970s). Lead service lines for drinking water are also a source of exposure when not properly monitored and maintained, as was the case in Flint. No one knows precisely how many lead service lines were installed nationwide before they were banned in 1986. Estimates place the number between 3 and 10 million. In his testimony, Green noted that the EPA has said the nation’s drinking water utilities need almost $400 billion dollars in infrastructure investments over the next 20 years. Current funds cover just 10% of this.

“The question is, do we want to spend the money?” asks Green. He suggests that federal, state, and local governments should begin by replacing the pipes in schools and playgrounds. Next, they should replace pipes in low-income communities of color that have historically been most heavily exposed to lead and other toxins.

“While money won’t solve all problems,” says Green, “it can solve this one. It’s a simple matter of testing the water, identifying the pipes with lead, and then eliminating the lead source.”

Jumana Vasi (AB, ’97, MS, ’08), Program Officer for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation

Speaking from her office in downtown Flint, in a building that overlooks the Flint River, Jumana Vasi notes that the water crisis unfolded “in full public view,” and yet environmental groups weren’t as engaged as they could have been. “If there had been a Clean Water Act permit issue, I could have given you one hundred people who would have come into town immediately with tested and practical solutions,” she says. But this wasn’t the case for drinking water infrastructure.

Founded in 1926, the Mott Foundation provides grants supporting education, the environment, civil society, and the area around the City of Flint. As a program officer, Vasi oversees about 40 grants, totaling approximately $4 million a year, dedicated to safeguarding the Great Lakes ecosystem. “We’re in the early stages of this, but the way I summarize where we are is that for decades Mott has invested in surface water protection—keeping our rivers, lakes, aquifers, streams, wetlands as protected as possible from habitat destruction, pollution, and overuse. Now we’re asking more questions about how that water gets to people in a way that’s good for the environment and good for people.”

Vasi sees an opportunity to develop safe drinking water expertise within the network of Great Lakes environmental groups. This might include a clearinghouse for information about the Safe Drinking Water Act, and more organizations with the capacity to advise citizens. “Right now, all the water testing happens through your state agency or municipality,” she says. “There’s no third party monitoring of trends or translation of data.” Vasi acknowledges the need for more research into effective interventions, but she says, “I think it’s clear that a system of checks and balances is the best defense against problems. Leaving it up to any one sector . . . is not going to provide the best outcome.”

Improving drinking water infrastructure can also benefit the environment. Flint, for example, currently loses up to 50% of the water in its system through leaks. Some of these leaks occur in the sewage and stormwater pipes, allowing waste to enter the natural system and contaminate aquifers and surface waters—potential sources of drinking water. Says Vasi, “The big picture is there’s a lot of connectivity that has not been appreciated. We all need to understand and move forward in a more integrated way than we have before.”

Noah Hall (BS, ’95, JD, ’98), Environmental Attorney, Associate Professor of Law at Wayne State University

Noah Hall doesn’t mince words: “As an environmental advocate, I’ve had to take a hard look in the mirror and ask myself, ‘What could I have done differently? How could I have missed this?’” Like many others, he wonders why nearly 18 months passed between the time Flint began drawing its water from the Flint River and the time the city reconnected with Lake Huron. “Anyone who can read a newspaper should have known what was going on in Flint for over a year,” says Hall. “As a society, none of us stepped up to the stop the problem as soon as we wish we had.”

Hall has spent his career as an environmental attorney, working on behalf of citizens in cases that include challenges to the Marathon Oil Refinery in southwest Detroit, and to the Detroit incinerator. In March, he was appointed Special Assistant Attorney General for Michigan, part of the special counsel team responsible for investigating whether state laws were violated during the Flint water crisis.

The team has already indicted two state employees, and a third employee has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. Hall, who leads the civil litigation, participated in a press conference on June 22, announcing lawsuits against two private corporations: Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN), a Texas-based company hired in 2013 to upgrade the Flint water plant to treat new sources of drinking water, including the Flint River; and Veolia North America, which Hall characterizes as the world’s largest water services company. Veolia was hired by Flint to serve as a consultant in February 2015 when it became clear there was a problem with the water.

For their part, LAN and Veolia have both denied the allegations of committing professional negligence and causing a public nuisance: corroded lead pipes. Veolia has also been charged with a third allegation—committing fraud by providing false statements about the safety of Flint’s drinking water, a charge the corporation denies. These lawsuits raise a host of new questions, and the situation is far from resolved. “This is not going to get wrapped up in a year,” says Hall, whose goal is to recover damages for the State of Michigan and to create a public trust fund for people directly affected by the contaminated water.

“I’ve done a lot of litigation over Great Lakes issues—water diversion, invasive species—and I’ve had a lot of success,” says Hall. “But when it comes to environmental justice, we don’t have a lot of success in court. The deck is really stacked against these communities, in part because courts want evidence of intentional discrimination. It isn’t enough to simply show that one segment of the population is disproportionately harmed by environmental contaminants.”

Still, Hall believes that the Civil Rights Act and environmental statutes give everyone the right to clean air, clean water, and an unpolluted landscape. He hopes that the special counsel’s investigation will identify those most responsible for the damage in Flint—and draw nationwide attention to the problem of environmental contamination.