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Land Matters: The Flint River Fallacy

One of the recurring errors among media in covering the god-awful drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has been to imply that the Flint River itself is the problem. There are many examples. “The Flint River is famously filthy,” said a writer in the New Yorker on February 4. The same week, the Los Angeles Times referred to “the corrosive Flint River,” a common but misleading phrase, and Mother Jones wrote: “The Flint River water contained dangerously high levels of lead,” which is false.

The staff of the Flint River Watershed Coalition, an advocacy group that supports a healthy river, found zero lead in the water of the Flint River at three locations during several tests between mid-October and mid-January. On the whole, multiple tests by the coalition in recent months have found “a strong aquatic ecosystem.” At the majority of nearly three dozen monitoring sites, testing found two and often three to five kinds of invertebrates that can’t survive contamination.

Rebecca Fedewa, the executive director of the watershed coalition, is eager to clarify the status of the river’s water quality. “Our testing across the watershed shows a healthy and trending upward river system,” she told me in an e-mail. “There are some places with contaminated sediments. But overall, the Flint River faces the same pollution threat of any river in the country—nonpoint source pollution, i.e., runoff that carries dirt, oils, fertilizers, pesticides, etc., from the ground and to the nearest body of water.”

The Flint River “is a fantastic resource that supports abundant fish and wildlife,” Fedewa wrote. “We have growing eagle and osprey populations in multiple locations, including right near downtown Flint. These are species that typically do not tolerate pollution.”

Mischaracterizing the quality of Flint River water diverts the focus from the true culprit in what has become an ongoing nightmare for residents of Flint: human error and disregard. When Flint city officials switched the source of its drinking water from Lake Huron water, provided by Detroit’s water utility, to Flint River water, they neglected to treat the river water in such a way as to reduce its ability to corrode lead pipes. The water’s levels of chloride are higher than that of the Lake Huron water the city had been running through its lead pipes, which is said to have contributed to the sudden corrosion of lead inside the pipes. But the chloride levels were not found to be extraordinary. The watershed coalition’s testing found between 49 and 86 milligrams per liter of chloride; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold of unsafe chloride levels for aquatic life in streams and groundwater begins at 230 milligrams per liter, and for drinking water it is 250 milligrams per liter. (The EPA’s drinking water standard for lead is, of course, zero milligrams per liter.)

Marc Edwards, the civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech who helped sound alarms about Flint’s drinking water, told the Detroit Free Press in late January: “We looked at the river very carefully. I didn’t see anything that proper treatment couldn’t render potable.” Fedewa told the Free Press that chemical pollution is a problem mainly along about two miles of the 142-mile-long river. Since the lead crisis emerged in Flint, though, people have come to think the whole river is a toxic soup. “They think their kayaks are going to melt,” she told the newspaper. That impression clouds the disastrous fault of public officials in safeguarding the welfare of their constituents.

With the March issue, we say farewell to our terrific managing editor, Lisa Speckhardt. For 15 years, many people in the ASLA community have come to know Lisa for her expert handling of the business of the magazine and of reader and member needs. A few have gasped when I’ve told them of her departure. Lisa has begun a new role as the editor of ICON, the magazine of the American Society of Interior Designers. We will miss Lisa’s consistent cheer most of all, and wish her the very best in her new job.

Bradford McKee
Landscape Architecture Magazine

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