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After news reports, state asks Flint for lead service line info

Nov 12, 2015

Flint’s water distribution supervisor, Robert Bincsik, says many of the city's records on where lead service lines are located are in these old handwritten index cards in a few filing cabinets.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality is asking Flint for data that would show where the city’s lead service lines are. People living in homes hooked to lead service lines have a higher risk of being exposed to lead in drinking water.

Under federal rules, those homes are supposed to be sampled to help determine how well a water system is doing in keeping lead out of the water. But Flint doesn’t necessarily know where those homes are.

A little over a week ago our Flint reporter, Steve Carmody, got to check out the city’s records in person.

Flint’s water distribution supervisor, Robert Bincsik, showed Carmody sets of old maps, and a few filing cabinets full of handwritten index cards from the last 100 years or so. These are Flint’s records.

“It’s not ideal, but it is what we have. Personally, I spent a lot of time in the field so … there are a lot of things about the water system that I know that are just in my personal memory and a lot of the guys are the same way. We do with what we have and we try to do the best we can, but this is what we have,” Bincsik said.

Flint technically should already know where all its lead service lines are. The city is responsible for keeping those records but it just hasn’t done that.

It’s something the city is doing now. It's getting help from the University of Michigan but it’s going to take three months to finish.

“Even the three different sets of records, they still don’t necessary make a perfectly complete set of records,” Bincsik said. “They [U of M] are working with us to modernize that and create a record that will be as accurate as we can make without excavating and determining what’s out there.”

Not only does the city not know exactly where its lead service lines are, city officials were admittedly “scrambling” to get the 100 samples it needed to send to the DEQ by the end of June.

“It was so bad we were sending people door to door just to try to get people to collect samples and get them back to us within the time frame,” Mike Glasgow, Flint’s utilities director, said in a recent interview.  

The ACLU’s Curt Guyette should get some credit here – he first reported this more than a month ago.

I asked DEQ’s Jim Sygo about this on Nov. 3 for a documentary Michigan Radio is producing about Flint’s water problems. Sygo is the new interim division chief for the Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Division at MDEQ, so in his defense, he’s still figuring a lot of this stuff out. He was promoted after the former chief was reassigned because of her role in Flint’s water problems.

Michigan Radio's The Environment Report published a story last week looking at why the state invalidated two of Flint’s samples that had some of the highest lead levels. Invalidating those two samples allowed the city and the state to keep saying Flint’s water was safe.  Here's a great video of how the math works.

I pointed out to Sygo that it looked weird that the state scrutinized and invalidated those two samples but none of the others. Virginia Tech lead expert Marc Edwards and others have have expressed suspicion that the state threw out those samples, but none of the samples that were from homes without lead service lines – those "worst-case scenario" homes you’re supposed to test.

The city says contradicting things about its sample pool in the report it submitted to the state. On the cover sheet Flint submitted, there’s a box checked that says no, not all the homes the city tested were the “worst-case scenario” homes with lead service lines it was supposed to.

But in the report, every sample has an “L” under a column asking for the type of service line.

When I pressed Sygo about the discrepancy on Nov. 3, he replied: “It’s news to me and you’re right I wasn’t there. I’d have to look into that.”

Sometime in the past six days or so, DEQ apparently did look into it. The agency sent Flint a letter on Monday demanding more information.

The letter says the DEQ reviewed digital records available in Flint. Of the city’s 324 monitoring sites that have been used for at least the last ten years to comply with the Lead and Copper Rule, the DEQ could only confirm that six sites are in fact "Tier 1" homes with a lead service line. The DEQ confirms 26 sites had copper service lines; those sites, the DEQ says, don’t count as Tier 1 homes.

“The city needs to provide additional information to the DEQ demonstrating these sites meet Tier 1 site criteria or we will assume they do not,” the letter says. It also demands information about the remaining 278 historic sampling sites by the end of the year.