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Tech prof explains science behind Flint water problems

By KURT HAUGLIE

khauglie@mininggazette.com

HOUGHTON – The situation with lead in the city of Flint’s water system has become a serious environmental and medical problem, and it should be a warning to communities with older water-delivery systems, according to David Hand.

Hand, who is a Ph.D. and chairman of the civil and environmental engineering department at Michigan Technological University, focusing on drinking water issues, said Flint’s problems with their water began in 2014 when it was decided as a cost-cutting measure for the financially strapped city to switch from Lake Huron water delivered from Detroit to Flint River water.

“The major problem with the Flint River water is there’s high chloride concentration in the water,” he said. “High chloride in the water makes the chemical reactions of the water aggressive if the pH is less than 7.”

Hand said Flint officials used typical water treatment procedures, but they left something out.

“They did not add a corrosion inhibitor in the water for some reason,” he said. “Either they forgot or they didn’t think it was necessary.”

The corrosion inhibitor coats pipes preventing lead from leaching into water, Hand said. Because the corrosion inhibitor wasn’t in the water, the acidity of the water corroded lead in some pipes and pipe fittings, allowing the toxic metal to be consumed by residents.

Hand said placing the corrosion inhibitor would have been relatively inexpensive.

“It would have cost them only $100 a day to do that,” he said. “Not very much.”

The untreated Flint water also attacked any scale on the pipes, which discolored the water and put particles of scale into the water, which came out of faucets, Hand said.

The amounts of lead in the Flint water were “staggering,” Hand said.

Houghton City Manager Eric Waara said the city started adding soda ash to its water in the mid 1990s.

“We use it to adjust the pH so it’s not as aggressive,” he said.

Houghton gets its water from wells set into an aquifer below the sands to the east of the city, which is where the city’s water-treatment plant is located.

Waara said city officials are serious about the safety of the water it delivers to its 1,400 billed customers.

“We’re entrusted to provide safe and abundant water to our residents,” he said.

Most of the lead service laterals in the city have been replaced over the years, Waara said.

Hancock City Manager Glenn Anderson said the city gets its water from Adams Township, and it’s treated with phosphate, which prevents lead getting into the water.

“It’s specifically designed to put a coating on the pipes,” he said.

Another possible source of lead has been eliminated in Hancock, Anderson said.

“There are absolutely no lead service lines,” he said.

There is no lead in the water received from Adams Township, Anderson said.

In written statement from Michigan American water, which serves the Calumet area, Terry Mackin, director of communications and external affairs, wrote the company regularly monitors for lead in the water.

“With respect to our operations, Michigan American Water and American Water samples for lead on a routine basis and our systems continue to be in compliance,” Mackin wrote. “Where needed, we provide appropriate corrosion control treatment, with many of our facilities using phosphate based corrosion inhibitors to ensure compliance with lead and copper limits established by EPA and state regulators in Michigan.”

Flint has gone back to water from Detroit, which Hand said has the corrosion inhibitor.

“It’s going to take two to three months at a minimum for the corrosion inhibitor to start working,” Hand said.

Another problem with Flint water is the discovery of e. coli bacteria, although it wasn’t widespread, Hand said.

Marc Edwards, a drinking-water researcher from Virginia Tech is involved with studying the Flint situation, and Hand said he should be able to help the city.

“(He’s) probably one of the world’s experts on lead contamination in old water-treatment systems,” he said. “”So they have the right person working on the problem. If he signs off on something, it’s going to work.”

Hand said most of the lead pipes in older systems run from the water main to buildings, including houses.

“To go and replace those is going to be prohibitive,” he said.

Locally, Hand said many of the houses in the area have pipes that are all lead or partially lead. Many of those pipes have brass fittings, which contain lead. Until the early 1980s solder used to connect water pipes had lead content, also.

“(Lead) may or may not be in these homes,” he said. “My feeling is in these older homes, people probably should have their water checked for lead.”

Hand said letting water run for a minute before using it can flush any lead which may have entered the water while it was sitting in the pipes.

“Lead corrosion is very slow,” he said.

There are filter systems available, which are attached at the faucet and remove lead, Hand said. The best ones are approved by the National Sanitation Foundation.