Flint water crisis: an engineer’s perspective

Caroline Fassett and Madison Weaver, News Editor and Staff Writer


While the Flint water crisis in Flint, Mich. has only recently gained worldwide recognition, some people expressed their concerns months ago and even conducted research to obtain a greater understanding of the problem. On Feb. 4, visiting speaker Dr. Shawn McElmurry gave a presentation about the Flint water crisis from an engineer’s perspective in the Dana Engineering Building. An associate professor of environmental engineering at Wayne State University, McElmurry spoke about the history of Flint’s water infrastructure–specifically what caused the decline in the city’s quality of water.

“It was nice to see a technical perspective about something that news outlets capture as a social issue,” Christian Intriago Velez ’16 said.

From 1967 to 2014, Flint received its water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. With a declining population that largely resulted from an expensive and malfunctioning water/sewer infrastructure, the city switched to drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014.

In June 2014, complaints regarding the quality of water began pouring in. By August, it was determined that the Flint water tested positive for E. coli; additionally, 87 residents were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease, and 10 of them died. Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by water-borne Legionella bacteria.

In March 2015, responding to the pleas of a concerned mother named LeeAnne Walters, Flint retested its water source and found that extreme levels of lead content were contaminating the river. At the request of Walters, in August 2015 Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech began independently conducting research with his students in Flint. 

Edwards found that the water was “very corrosive,” causing “lead contamination in homes,” McElmurry said. “He recognized all sorts of houses that had this problem, and he started ringing the alarm bells.” 

A month later, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of the Hurley Medical Center released a study showing that children from Flint had blood lead levels two to three times higher than that of children living elsewhere in the country. While Flint has since switched back to water drawn from Lake Huron on Jan16, 2016, President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration ordering $5 million in federal assistance to support state and local response efforts in Flint.

What about the quality of the water resulted in such calamity for Flint? McElmurry  pointed to the waters of the Flint River, which were high in both chlorine and dissolved organic carbon. The dark red color of the water was caused by the iron of the pipes that the water was carried in.

“You’re supposed to keep track of all the lead pipes in your water system. Flint used index cards that are handwritten. They were just sampling willy-nilly, the most convenient places. And, quite frankly, they weren’t sampling enough houses,” McElmurry said, who discovered such when visiting Flint and drawing information about the crisis himself.

Flint is currently characterized by “serious, serious levels of blight, and whole neighborhoods that look like ghost towns … of the houses that are still there, they are uninhabitable. Every once in awhile you’ll find a neighborhood or a house with people who are fightingfighting to maintain their property,” McElmurry said.

Though the mayor of Flint has estimated that it will cost $1.5 billion to rectify the city’s damaged water distribution system, McElmurry believes otherwise.

“I think that’s short-selling it … I don’t think they realize they have to replace a lot of the main as well as service lines. And the effects of lead are multigenerational,” McElmurry said.

“He definitely presented a lot of the information well. I absolutely feel like I understand the information surrounding the Flint crisis a lot better,” Sydney Isaacs ’16 said.

“I thought it was interesting because it was very comprehensive. It showed the engineering side [of the crisis], and the media usually just captures the political side. I have a new, good perspective [about the Flint crisis] now,” Sarah Dickert ’16 said.

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