Amateur Chemistry, MDEQ Lies, All Around Government Incompetence, Social Justice Warriors => Everything Goes Wrong
Usually, when the words ‘Flint’ and ‘lead poisoning’ are used in the same sentence you get a mental image of homicides by gunshot. Likewise, in Michigan, ‘amateur’ and ‘chemistry’ conjures up images of an illegal meth lab fire. Now, however, we have allegations that the City of Flint’s amateur drinking water chemistry is causing high lead levels in children. This story has exploded over the last week and, as usual, the ignorati in the main stream media and Michigan politics are clueless.
Flint’s emergency financial manager switched the city’s drinking water source to the Flint River in April 2014, an attempt to save the ruined city $ 30 million a year – the vigorish being extracted by the pirates at the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department. The same extortion which motivated the Detroit suburbs to create the Great Lakes Water Authority. Using river water was an intermediate step, with the ultimate goal of Flint joining the new Karegnondi Water Authority and resuming Lake Huron sourcing after the new KWA pipeline is completed in 2016.
Unfortunately, Emergency Financial Manager Ed Kurtz did not realize that river water would require much different preparation than the Lake Huron water they had been supplied by DW&SD. He rose in life as the leader of a business school, not as a chemist. It doesn’t appear that Flint Water Treatment Plant’s staff water chemists had a clue, either. Comments made by Governor Snyder at the presser for his Supreme Court nominee Joan Larsen suggest he was neck deep in this decision and also completely oblivious to the technical issues.
Flint residents protested immediately, complaining of poor taste, foul odors, and turbidity (lack of clarity). Much of this unrest was part of a long term drive to oust the emergency financial manager running Flint, the paramount goal of the city’s social justice warriors. It didn’t help that Ed Kurtz raised water rates about 50%, emulating DW&SD’s obscene fees on top of maximum taxes piracy. Public outrage has increased in Flint ever since. Genesee Circuit Court Judge Archie Hayman enjoined Flint’s water rate hike, throwing Flint’s finances back into disorder. Since Judge Haymen’s order was left in place by the Appeals Court and went into effect, Flint water collections have dropped by $ 1.75 million a month.
In all fairness to EFM Kurtz, part of his rate increase was intended to replenish $ 15.7 million which had been transferred from the Flint water fund in 2007 to pay a sewerage overflow settlement. However this entire situation was almost certainly an attempt to quickly balance Flint’s books and wrap up emergency financial management. Lansing was certainly sweating EFM Kurtz to conclude Flint’s restoration in order to shut down the social justice warriors before our 2014 election.
So what is happening here, technically? Will Detroit water fix Flint’s problems? (Hint: No)
The Lead Leaching Issue
There is little or no lead in Flint’s drinking water when it leaves their Water Treatment Plant. Lead levels are at or below the limits of analytical detection, sub parts per billion. Flint, like most older American cities, has a lot of residences hooked up to their water distribution system with soft lead pipes. Flint water is being contaminated by lead from these retail service pipes at the end their distribution system. Most cities with lead service pipes do not experience notable lead contamination through lead service pipes because decades of scale buildup inside the pipes separates the lead from the water. They maintain these pipe scale linings through corrosion control programs mandated by the EPA LCR rule since 1998.
Flint’s lead service pipes have lost their protective scale lining due to poor chemical control of the water running through the pipes. Lead is a pretty corrosion resistant metal and the calcium scales inside lead pipes are actually quite difficult to remove.
Ask anyone who has had to clean lime scale out of a shower stall. It takes a lot of scrubbing. This is why lead is not an issue in most cities which have lead pipes at the end of their water distribution systems.
None of this is new science, it goes back to Vitruvius in ancient Rome. American cities have implemented corrosion control schemes in their water distribution network to prevent metals in piping and joints from leaching into the water. Flint has not, and it appears that they relied on Detroit Water & Sewerage Department to provide water incorporating corrosion control. DW&SD’s corrosion control relies on consistent incoming water and some usage of orthophosphate forming chemicals.
Flint residents and the media have focused on the incoming water quality difference – the use of river water – but pH control and chemical additions are actually far more important in minimizing lead pipe leaching. The Flint Water Treatment Plant’s river-sourced water was certainly responsible for the initial taste, odor, and clarity complaints, but it has little to do with lead pipe leaching. There are a fair number of inland American cities with lead pipes which successfully rely on river water for their drinking water infeed.
The most important factor controlling lead pipe leaching is pH, the acidity or basicity of the water. Lead is quite corrosion resistant and was widely used to store strong acids before exotic corrosion resistant alloys were developed in the 1920’s. Lead develops a thin protective surface film in contact with acids and doesn’t corrode any further. Lead also has a zero corrosion rate in pure water, but lead does have a tendency to corrode in alkaline (basic) water solutions. This appears to be happening in Flint.
At this point, you need to know a little about the pH values of aqueous solutions. A pH value of 7.0 is neutral, a solution which is neither acid nor alkaline (basic). PH values below 7.0 indicate an acid solution and pH values above 7.0 indicate a basic (alkaline) solution. Potable water in drinking water systems is usually adjusted to be a little alkaline (basic), with its pH ranging from 7.0 to 8.0. This reduces corrosion of iron and steel pipes in the presence of chlorine, while providing good taste. Acids taste sour (think vinegar) and bases taste bitter (I know, your mother never washed your mouth out with soap).
The latest (June 2015) report available from the Flint Water Treatment Plant indicate that Flint’s river-sourced water pH is averaging 7.61, with a high and low of 7.76 and 7.40 at the tap. They also reported a ‘raw’ value of pH at 7.88 minimum / 7.97 average / 8.32 maximum. Hopefully by ‘raw’ they mean incoming water pH, rather than finished water delivered by the treatment plant. Going back to March 2015, however, the Flint Water Treatment Plant reported their ‘tap’ water pH values as 7.30 minimum / 7.89 average / 9.90 maximum. By comparison, DW&SD reports that their system wide water pH values in 2014 were 6.87 minimum / 7.38 average / 7.96 maximum.
The 0.23 pH difference between the June 2015 Flint WTP average and the DW&SD 2014 average doesn’t sound like much, but I neglected to mention that pH is a logarithmic scale – so it is a big difference. The 0.51 pH difference between the March 2015 Flint WTP average and the DW&SD 2014 average is even more significant, particularly if the 9.90 maximum pH occurred for an extended period of time. Over time, the more alkaline (basic) Flint WTP water is far more corrosive to lead than the less alkaline DW&SD water. This corrosive effect compromises the protective scale inside lead pipes and allows lead to leach into the flowing water.
Stephen Busch , a supervisor in the MDEQ Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Office, lied to EPA in an email, claiming the existence of a corrosion control scheme at the Flint WTP. The EPA itself does not have a good reputation on water issues. Consider the EPA’s latest water quality catastrophe: turning the San Juan River in Colorado yellow with waste metal compounds. The EPA and CDC also have a dubious record on drinking water lead issues. Just ask the residents of Washington, DC. Critics with the power of the Federal government behind them, but not really operational talent. So government experts have not been much help to Flint water customers. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, criticize.
Flint drinking water will not benefit from any more chemicals, at least in the short term. Nor will changing back to DW&SD water end the lead leaching. Sorry, social justice warriors. The protective scales inside Flint service lead pipes are now gone and it will take at least a year to restore those films, even with orthophosphate producing chemical additions. according to a good English study of just this issue. It might take even longer in Flint, where water temperatures are colder than in the north of England.
Flint’s only available option to end corrosion of their lead service pipes, at this point, is to impose close controls on finished water pH. Maybe even drive pH just below 7.0 until the protective scales inside their lead service pipes regenerate. They will have to do this regardless of the water source, because the DW&SD water pH is also too high now that the Flint lead service pipes’ protective scales are gone. Flint will have to add orthophosphate forming chemicals as well [phosphoric acid and surfactants], but these will require year(s) to work. This process cannot be accelerated by adding more chemicals because too much phosphorous will stimulate algae and cyanobacteria growth (think Toledo’s problems with Lake Erie water in 2014) in the drinking water.
The only good news here is that this is a good project for statistical process control. Back when GM actually manufactured stuff in Flint, they trained quite a few people in SPC. Someone there should remember this handy, effective technique to keep a running process within tight specifications. Control charts, also known as ‘X bar and r charts’ in automotive parlance.
The Steel and Iron Corrosion Issue
Corrosion of iron and steel in Flint drinking water has also been raised as an issue by Virginia Tech analyses. A separate issue from lead leaching, but somewhat related because it also reflects the loss of protective scales lining iron and steel pipes. This corrosion appears be the result of Flint’s heavy and irregular usage of ferric chloride to make river water acceptable for human consumption. Iron and steel corrosion has probably caused the majority of the clarity complaints from Flint water customers, who are receiving reddish colored water, because the Flint turbidity analyses at their water plant meet national standards. The reddish water contains iron corrosion products which create its peculiar color. Worst of all, this confirms that the Flint water system’s iron and steel distribution pipes have lost their protective internal scales, just like their lead pipes.
Ferric chloride (FeCl3) is used as a coagulant to strip suspended, small solids from water, a major issue in producing potable water from fast flowing river water. Ferric chloride in water just above pH 7.0 reacts with available hydroxide ions (OH-) to form a floc of iron hydroxide (FeO(OH)−) that facilitates removal of suspended solids in filtration beds. This reaction also releases chlorine into the water. Then Flint adds a further 6 ppm of sodium hypochlorite to suppress microrganisms.
Virginia Tech analyses show high rates of steel corrosion in Flint water, but rely on sporadic sampling so we don’t know what is occurring between the samplings. The Flint Water Treatment Plant’s usage of ferric chloride is quite uneven and it is quite possible that far too much chlorine is present in their finished water when their FeCl3 usage spikes. The Flint WTP used 2.5 times as much FeCl3 in February 2015 per unit of finished water as they used in June 2015. This produced 33% higher total chlorine residuals in Flint’s February 2015 water, when compared to their June 2015 finished water. Why?
The total chlorine residuals Flint reported from March through June 2015 are about twice the level that DW&SD reported in 2014 and chlorine, especially free chlorine, is extremely corrosive to copper, iron, and steel. So is the fluoride added to water to prevent dental caries, but fluoride levels here are much lower and masked by the effects of chlorine.
Here we have another good project for statistical process control. Corrosion inhibition is certainly necessary, but its effectiveness will be irregular until Flint gets chlorine levels under control. Flint will indeed have to add orthophosphate forming chemicals to control iron and steel pipe corrosion, but it will require considerable time to restore protection inside the distribution piping. While adding orthophosphate forming chemicals will control iron and steel corrosion, they will not protect copper pipes within residences. Hence chlorine will still have to be carefully controlled as an integral part of Flint’s corrosion control program.
More good projects for statistical process control.
- The common thread in Flint’s current water problems is poor process control at their Water Treatment Plant.
- The failure to properly control the pH and chemistry of Flint’s finished water has damaged their distribution system to the point where just a sourcing change to Detroit water will not correct the problems, particularly the lead leaching.
- It may be easier to control the chemistry of Detroit water within the limits Flint needs, but the substantial additional expense of Detroit water will deny Flint the funds to execute the needed additional, tighter process controls.
- The Flint Water Treatment Plant will need to dramatically intensify control of its finished water pH for at least a year to minimize lead leaching while a corrosion control program restores the scale linings of their lead service piping.
- The Flint Water Treatment Plant will need to strictly limit finished water chlorine residuals to minimize copper, iron, and steel corrosion in their distribution piping. Again, it will take time to reestablish protective linings within Flint’s iron and steel distribution piping. And without controlling chlorine residuals, the amounts of orthophosphate forming chemicals needed to prevent corrosion may be so high as as to stimulate algae and cyanobacteria growth in the longer term. Failure to control chlorine residuals will also damage copper piping within residences, regardless of orthophosphate forming chemical additions.
- The Flint Water Treatment Plant should implement a corrosion control program immediately, adding orthophosphate forming chemicals, to restore beneficial scale linings inside the piping carrying their water.
- Politicians, especially Michigan politicians, are not qualified to make technical decisions. They can’t even identify those who are qualified to make technical decisions..