Albert Einstein Called Him "The Greatest Mind in American History."
The second phase of Governor Snyder’s plan to restore Flint’s damaged water infrastructure was announced today. Michigan’s taxpayers will pay the pirates at Detroit Water & Sewerage $ 6 million to reconnect the Flint water system to DW&SD’s Lake Huron water supply. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation will ante up $ 4 million more and the City of Flint will will pay $ 2 million extra as well. Governor Snyder said: “The technical experts helping the city on its water advisory all agree this move back to the Great Lakes Water Authority provides the best public health protection for children and families.” Note that our devious Governor gives you the impression that the funds will be going to the GLWA. No, they will all be going straight to the pirates at DW&SD unless Flint’s new Karegnondi water pipeline is seriously delayed.
As we pointed out last week, the Flint water distribution system has been seriously damaged by 17 months of amateur chemistry and government incompetence after resourcing their water supply to the Flint River. Incompetent control of water chemistry after April 2014 has dissolved protective pipe linings, allowing lead, iron and steel corrosion which has released lead and iron compounds into Flint’s water on its way to customers. A process called leaching. The finished water coming out of the Flint Water Treatment Plant is seemingly fine, but it certainly isn’t by the time it arrives at their customer’s taps.
Because the damage to Flint’s water infrastructure commenced with this resourcing, a hue and cry went up to reconnect Flint to Detroit water. A logical fallacy. Detroit water did not damage Flint’s water infrastructure when it was used prior to April 2014, at least as far as we know. (Do we really know?) However it cannot – by itself – repair the damage done since. Flint pipes may not have been corroding before April 2014, but they certainly are now. Detroit water is controlled just enough to prevent damage to water infrastructure, but not enough to repair damaged infrastructure. Flint is going to require a distinctly different water chemistry than Detroit.
The technical experts are touting corrosion control plans to stop the corrosion in Flint’s water distribution piping. By corrosion control, they intend to load up Flint’s water with orthophosphate forming chemicals to prevent further corrosion and attempt to restore the protective scale linings in Flint’s water piping. This is the EPA’s stock recommended practice, derived from their statistical analysis of water systems across the nation. The problem here is those statistical analyses were made of more or less functional water distribution systems. Not a heavily damaged system like Flint’s. Flint’s water problems are an ex novo case. The only recent case of lead pipe leaching even close occurred in Washington, DC, but is enough different in its particulars that Washington’s corrective actions do not provide an assured plan of action for Flint.
Corrosion control should work, but only if at least three other important technical characteristics of Flint’s water are strictly controlled: pH, chloride content, and hardness. Right now they are not under control. And the chemicals selected for corrosion control will have to be evaluated carefully to determine whether they actually prevent corrosion and restore pipe scale linings in Flint’s actual water chemistry, be it from the Flint River or Lake Huron. This is where the one true expert on Flint’s water becomes important.
Josiah Williard Gibbs was a modest genius who laid the foundation of chemical thermodynamics in his seminal duograph titled “On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances”, published in 1875 and 1878 as two parts.
His single most important contribution to chemical thermodynamics was the concept of Gibbs Free Energy, which dictates whether chemical species will react. This is the singular issue in selecting corrosion control for Flint’s water distribution system. Will the corrosion control chemicals actually inhibit corrosion and restore pipe scale linings? What limits must be placed on the other water characteristics to insure that the corrosion control chemicals actually perform their intended function? The answers will be provided by the changes in Gibbs Free Energy (∆G), nothing else.
Flint desperately needs a competent chemist with a background in thermodynamics, not EPA statistics or cookie cutter recommendations. Fortunately, Michigan pays a fortune to maintain a great university system which has lots of chemistry departments. A knowledgeable professor of inorganic chemistry and a few graduate students can answer these questions and confirm their answers with a bit of experimental work. Throw in a few metallurgists with backgrounds in corrosion and you have a workable plan.
The Flint Water Technical Committee, the MDEQ, and the EPA have a rather different plan. They are going to reach a ‘scientific consensus’ from statistical studies of other water systems and then start adding chemicals to Flint’s water. They don’t seem to have any plan to control Flint’s other water characteristics, which are indeed out of control. Then they will intensify testing of Flint’s water at customers’ taps. Then they will adjust the chemical additions. Then they will test. Then they will adjust. Then they will test. Then they will adjust….. ad nauseam.
The problem here? Flint water customers are being used as lab rats in a grand government experiment. This is not likely to be well received by Flint residents, even those who are not social justice warriors. After all, they already have 17 months’ experience as lab rats in a badly thought out, disastrous cost reduction experiment.
Another problem here? Remember the problems Toledo had last year with cyanobacteria in their drinking water? That was caused by excessive phosphates in Lake Erie. The corrosion control chemicals proposed for Flint’s water system are mostly phosphates and phosphate formers. So you have an issue with the possible formation of undesirable microorganisms in the finished water, and another issue with the phosphorous when the water is discharged back into the environment.All that added phosphate in Flint’s wastewater has to go somewhere and that somewhere is Lake Erie, eventually. On the one hand, you have the U.S. and Canadian government trying to ratchet down phosphorous in Lake Erie under the GLWQA, and on the other hand you have American water utilities adding phosphorous to their wastewater discharges. Your tax dollars hard at work…
So we come back to my hero Josiah Willard Gibbs. Applying the thermodynamic tools he devised should resolve Flint’s drinking water problems with the least amount of chemicals, in the shortest period of time, without using the people of Flint as lab rats any longer. A parting quote from Dr. Gibbs seems appropriate here:
“The laws of thermodynamics, as empirically determined, express the approximate and probable behavior of systems of a great number of particles, or, more precisely, they express the laws of mechanics for such systems as they appear to beings who have not the fineness of perception to enable them to appreciate quantities of the order of magnitude of those which relate to single particles, and who cannot repeat their experiments often enough to obtain any but the most probable results.”