(Flint, MI)– Flint’s Chief Public Health Advisor, Dr. Pamela Pugh, issued the following message Monday, hours before a deadline imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has given the City of Flint until June 26, 2017 to determine a long-term primary and secondary water source. Mayor Karen Weaver made a recommendation that fulfills all of the requirements, and provided City Council with all the information needed to make an informed decision to support the recommendation, or provide an approved alternative option. Since Council has not provided an approved alternate option, it has one more opportunity to approve the recommendation this evening:
On April 18, 2017, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver recommended the use of Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) as Flint’s primary water source and Genesee County Drain Commission (GCDC) as a backup. This recommendation came after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in October 2016 under the Obama Administration, openly and publicly directed the City of Flint and State of Michigan to select a water source enveloped within a plan for the city to have a safe, reliable, and permanent water source by October 2017. It should be noted Mayor Weaver’s decision to recommend GLWA did not come in haste but after vigorous and at times heated debate where public health became most critical and financial practicality was separately explored. Great consideration was also given to the fact that a rushed, cost-driven decision was made to switch to the Flint River as a drinking water source in April 2014, without proper consideration. The decision proved to be costly, in more ways than one. It changed the chemistry of the water flowing through water pipes in Flint. The improperly treated water corroded the lead pipes, causing lead to leach into the City’s water supply. It depleted chlorine disinfectant, proliferated growth of pathogenic microbes such as legionella bacteria; and ultimately created the Flint Water Crisis. Therefore, it is imperative for City leaders to take an approach that places public health at the center of this policy recommendation. The decision comes with the understanding that critical socio-economic and quality of life issues such as Flint’s self-sufficiency, local employment opportunities, and water affordability/access would also be paramount.
The Mayor’s widely publicized recommendation has been commended by public health and medical communities for placing emphasis on public health, while also being the most economical. Unlike all other options, it avoids a switch in water sources and bypasses potential imbalances in water chemistry likely to occur, especially given Flint’s recently damaged and now fragile water system. This option allows the City to use allocated federal funds to make updates to the City’s aging infrastructure and better protect public health. This includes funding for public health safeguards such as replacement of lead-tainted water lines; real-time monitoring of water safety and quality parameters such as chlorine, pH, and phosphate levels; right-sizing the distribution system including replacement of transmission lines and small pipes related to public health threats like main breaks and aging water; pump replacement; and installation of new Smart meters. GLWA will also be contractually bound to provide socio-economic benefits to low-income customers by assisting them with water bill payments through the Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP). Today, Flint City Council could announce that they support Mayor Weaver’s recommendation, the option that prioritizes the residents’ health and shifts the least amount of cost burden to the residents.
Contrarily, today the Flint City Council could choose to move forward with another option such as utilizing the Flint water treatment plant and the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). Last fall, Mayor Weaver suggested this option be implemented so the City of Flint could have autonomy over its water treatment and distribution. However, upon further consideration, it became apparent that this option would come with greater health risks, costly treatment plant upgrades that could deplete funding for infrastructure upgrades, the likelihood of inadequate staffing, and higher water rates. Furthermore, as stated in a recent letter to the Mayor and City Council president, the Director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality stated, in order to proceed with such an alternate option, Council is required to submit the plan to the U.S. EPA for approval and conduct water studies and testing for the alternate option, none of which has been done. Putting Flint’s water plant back into operation and using the KWA pipeline would also require Flint to construct a 3-mile connector pipe by October 1, 2017. If even possible, this would cause two water supply switches that could result in an imbalance in the water system chemistry, therefore corrosion control studies would be required for each switch.
Today, the City of Flint has an opportunity to show how science and politics can come together for the health and well-being of residents. At this critical juncture, Flint’s leadership has an opportunity to show its love for the City, to display wisdom, and select a drinking water source for Flint that best promotes health justice. After months of deliberation, the time for a decision on this critical matter is now. A delay in a vote could mean a suspension of power that gives way for the state and federal government to once again be the driver of Flint’s fate.
Pamela Pugh serves as the Chief Public Health Advisor for the City of Flint, Michigan since October 2016. She holds a Doctorate of Public Health (DrPH) and Master of Science from the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Florida A&M University.