Michael Swartz / February 4, 2016

Getting the Lead Out in Flint

The water-supply problems continue to grow nationwide.

Like that leaky faucet keeping you awake at night with its slow drip, solving the lead-fouled water situation in Flint, Michigan, is an issue that is slowly expanding from the local and state level to become a federal concern. Not only has the EPA stepped up its involvement, but the probe now involves the FBI and the EPA’s criminal investigation division. While Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning noted that it would likely take something on the record that is provably false to result in criminal charges for those involved, the prospect of a scapegoat being found cannot be discounted.

As far as blame is concerned, the EPA has to take its share. While it regulates lead and copper piping, its latest iteration of rules regarding these commonly found commodities date back to 2007. Since 2010, the EPA has dithered on updated rules tightening the standards, but they now promise new corrosion control rules by 2017.

Because of its unique properties of being leak-proof yet malleable, until recent years lead was commonly found and installed in both municipal and domestic water piping. Domestic water treatment, such as that done on the municipal level, is supposed to include trace amounts of lime or orthophosphates to control the corrosion that allows lead to taint the water supply. Flint’s issue came from improper treatment of its river water when they switched to that source as a cost-saving measure in 2014.

So now that Flint’s water pipelines are a complete mess, Congress is ready and willing to assist Flint with its infrastructure issues. Michigan’s two Democrat senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, have floated a $600 million proposal before Congress only to be topped by Rep. Candice Miller, the Michigan Republican who has asked for a cool billion dollars in emergency funds for the beleaguered city.

Like most cities, Flint is in no position to tackle the task alone. But if you can consider it takes even a few hundred million dollars to replace the piping infrastructure in a city of roughly 100,000 like Flint, imagine the cost for the entire country. The EPA estimated this back in 2003, concluding it would cost $276.8 billion and take 20 years or more to complete the task. With inflation, that cost now runs over $356 billion — or more than $1,100 per American. And that doesn’t factor in the government’s tendency to understate costs while overstating benefits.

It appears that the tap water you may well think of as practically free is going to cost a lot more. Look for new EPA directives leading to a lot of water bill increases in your future if you’re tapped into a municipal system — it’s a lead-pipe cinch to occur.

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