Everyone is aware of what occurred in Flint, Michigan where the water supply became contaminated with lead. Essentially, when the local water company switched its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department- meaning they were receiving treated water- to the raw water of the Flint River, officials failed to use corrosion inhibitors. The result was that lead leached from old pipes into the Flint water supply, potentially poisoning tens of thousands and prompting state and federal investigations.
The use of corrosion inhibitors is important because they build and maintain a barrier between lead pipes and the water the pipes carry. This is critical because it not only protects the public from this occurring while water flows through utility pipes, it also protects against lead in household plumbing. Issues can occur if this barrier is permitted to erode, at which time lead can leach into the water.
This is what occurred in Flint. The barrier that had been purposefully built-up and maintained inside of lead pipes eroded. This caused lead to leach from old pipes and solder and into the water supply.
Evidence that this was occurring began when local residents complained of discolored water, much of which contained grit. At least some of this discoloration and grit can be associated with the protective barrier eroding.
Now, flash back to 2014 when large amounts of the chemical MCHM (a chemical used in coal treatment) was spilled into the Elk River by Freedom Industries. During the spill residents began complaining not only about the licorice–like odor but changes in their water quality. Numerous photos were shared of orange water and grit coming from household taps. This was especially true during the flushing process. In fact, when residents complained of this occurring during flushing, officials informed them that this was expected because pipes normally accumulate grit. No was was alarmed.
Then, this article by WOWK-TV in Charleston appeared that describes MCHM as “clearly corrosive”. The article even described a metal container in which MCHM was stored as being corroded.
What’s especially troubling is that at the time of the spill in 2014, public health officials were not aware that MCHM was corrosive because the Eastman Chemical Company (the manufacturer of MCHM) apparently failed to share this information. The above referenced WOWK article describes the following documented communication occurring between “Eastman’s sales reps stating MCHM can be corrosive”.
“Did you pass this on to Dennis [the owner of Freedom Industries]?” said Kevin Thompson on a recorded deposition interview from January of 2015.
“Dennis?” replied Glenda Flick, an Inside Sales Rep for the Eastman Chemical Company at the time of the water crisis.
“Ferrell.” replied Thompson.
“No.” – replied Flick.
“Why?” asked Thompson.
“He didn’t ask me for that information,” replied Flick.
The purpose of this article is not to point fingers. The purpose is to ask some interesting questions that this information poses.
First, were public officials aware that MCHM was corrosive? If so, when and how were they notified and were corrosion inhibitors adjusted?
Second, could the MCHM have corroded the protective barrier in lead pipes?
Third, during the flushing process, were corrosion inhibitors used in the water and if so were they adjusted?
Fourth, could this flushing have removed more of the protective barrier that may have been weakened by MCHM ?
Fifth, if public officials were aware of the corrosive nature of MCHM (assuming they were not) what would they have done differently?
Finally, was the water immediately tested for lead following the chemical spill? This is especially relevant to children and pregnant women. Could they have digested lead infused water even after being told the water was safe for all purposes?
And remember, 48 hours after the public was informed that the water was safe to use, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised pregnant women not to drink the water. Who knew what then?
These are important questions that need answered. They are certainly worth investigating. Two and a half years after the event, we must still demand answers. After all, we’re talking three times the number of people than were impacted at Flint.