The Situation with the Flint River
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
As most people are aware, the City of Flint, Michigan, is in the middle of an environmental and health crisis. The origins of this crisis come from what was once a cost cutting move that moved Flint from the Detroit water supply to pulling their water from the Flint River. After seeing a rise in cases of lead poisoning in the people of the city, especially the children, it was determined that the water they were getting from the river was corroding the lead pipes and releasing the lead from the pipes into the water supply.
Much of Michigan is in financial trouble and many of the state’s local governments are doing everything in their power to remain solvent. In 1962 Flint had attempted to build a pipeline for water to come from Lake Huron. This was ended due to a real estate profiteering scam and Flint began buying their water from the City of Detroit, culminating in the cessation of Flint’s own water treatment. A 2011 study by a local firm concluded that using the Flint River water would mean for expensive treatment, but that it could be done if improvements to the city’s water treatment plant were made. Water from Lake Huron was a more cost effective solution and Flint decided to move to a different water cooperative, to the dismay of Detroit who deemed the water agreement they had with Flint to be terminated in April of 2014. Unfortunately, the connection to the other water cooperative was not to be completed until 2016. This meant that Flint had to use a backup water source, the Flint River. While the water source had been the backup water supply for 50 years it had not been a major contributor in all that time. The Flint water treatment authority had been forced to issue boil advisories in August and September of 2014 due to coli-form bacteria and there were spikes in a chlorine related carcinogen, most likely caused by over chlorination to combat the bacteria. There is also a suspected link to a legionnaire’s disease outbreak. The major problem came from the low ph and higher salinity of the Flint River water corroding the protective layer of the lead pipes and leaching lead into the water.
Flint is now returning to the Detroit water supply and Flint will be adding orthophosphate to the Detroit water to help build up the protective scale in the lead pipes. How long this will take is unknown.
The Situation in Our Area
The Harpeth River, where our water comes from in most of Williamson County, has had its own share of contamination issues. The Harpeth Valley Utility District (HVUD), where most of the county gets their water shows lead at 1.3 parts per billion (ppb). HVUD Uses copper pipes for tap water delivery so the possibility of a situation like that in Flint is impossible. The Hillsboro, Burwood & Thompson’s Station Utility district shows1.5 ppb of lead in their water quality tests and they use PVC and Ductile Iron pipes for their water delivery. Franklin Water Management shows 1.4 ppb. The Mallory Valley Utility District has the lowest lead locally, with .6 ppb. When you compare these to the EPA regulatory standard of 15 ppb, or even the 5 ppb level the researchers from Virginia Tech call a cause for concern, you can see that our water here is relatively safe. Flint averages 27 ppb with the highest found spiking at 13,000. Two communities get their water from outside the county. Fairview buys their water from Dickson County (2.2 ppb) and Brentwood water comes from metro Nashville water (1.5 ppb).
Two contributors to water quality problems in our area were ELMCO and Metalico. The Egyptian Lacquer Manufacturing Company was the source of a leak into Liberty Creek. An underground line leaked into the soil, washed into Liberty Creek and flowed into Harpeth. Acetone and Toluene were the main components of that leak and it was down river from the Franklin water intake. Since the pipes have been disconnected and the chemical tanks removed before the fall of 2008, no free product has been observed in Liberty Creek or the Harpeth. What lead we do see in the Harpeth and surrounding watersheds comes from natural sources but may be contributed to by lead smelting and battery reclamation. From the 1950s to the 1990s in College Grove, General Smelting and Refining Inc. (owned by Metalico) operated a plant that did just that on a site adjacent to the river near its head waters. While there is no current concern for lead contamination, continued monitoring for lead and antimony from the plant still goes on.
While there are concerns over the treatment of sewage and the amount of water used by some entities, the water in this area has received a clean bill of health by the last set of standards and test and new, stricter standards are coming before the next time the state renews local water certificates. For information on some of the challenges facing the Harpeth River and water quality reports look at the web sites for the utility districts discussed above and also take a look at the web page for the Harpeth River Watershed Association.