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3 years later, the Flint water crisis has changed how other cities deal with infrastructure

Apr 25, 2017

Three years ago today, the city of Flint switched to the Flint River for its drinking water. We all know how that story goes.

So now, three years later, how has what happened in Flint changed the way we look at our drinking water?

“The events that have happened in Flint have re-prioritized things for many of the communities; well, all the communities we work with,” says David LaFrance, CEO of the American Water Works Association. It’s an industry group for water system operators. He spoke last month at a water summit in Flint.

LaFrance says his group is advising cities to remove lead service lines over time, as they can afford it, and keep up with corrosion control to keep lead out of the water.

And cities around the country have been doing a lot of double checking since Flint.

Last spring, the EPA reminded water systems they should have a list of what their water pipes are made of, and make those lists public.

Elin Betanzo directs the safe drinking water program with the Northeast-Midwest Institute.

“So across the state of Michigan, water systems have been putting a bigger emphasis on reviewing their records. If they’re not able to come up a complete inventory, they’re starting to take stock of what they have,” she says.

She says this also means checking to make sure they’re testing the right homes; those that are at the highest risk of having lead service lines.

The EPA did not provide anyone for an interview for this story.

Water expert Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech University says that the events in Flint have changed the way we understand our water systems, and the way regulatory agencies deal with contamination problems.

“And lead was something that was once ignored, covered up, and now it’s taken very seriously and we’re even starting to see some improved sampling in schools, which I thought we might never see in my lifetime,” he says.

Edwards also says that compared to the Washington, D.C. lead-in-water crisis in the early 2000s, the events in Flint have led to major changes within regulatory agencies.

“I think one of the more profound regulatory changes that people don’t even talk about is the fact that people have been indicted for what occurred,” says Edwards. “And as I travel the country, I go to state regulatory agencies. Good, honest people at these agencies tell me that this is such an example that when they see something wrong now, they can just say ‘well, if we don’t do something, we’re going to be like MDEQ in Flint. We want to do our jobs.’”

Edwards says there have been positive changes at EPA's Region 5 (the region that includes Michigan), but overall, EPA still needs improvement.

“EPA’s got some serious problems, they’re very much in need of reform; bipartisan. I’m afraid that’s not going to happen at the present moment, but never give up hope,” he says.