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What’s the worst thing about the Flint, MI water crisis? Is there any hope to rectify the problems?

The absolute worst thing about the Flint, MI water “crisis” was that it was a prime example of the tail wagging the dog.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defined this as:

the tail wagging the dog (idiom)
Definition of the tail wagging the dog (informal)

—used to describe a situation in which an important or powerful person, organization, etc., is being controlled by someone or something that is much less important or powerful

What actually happened is much simpler, but really impacts all of Michigan, not just Flint. Because all of the rest of Michigan has exactly the same problem.

Yes, you read that correctly. And it’s actually the fault of the real estate industry.

Here’s a condensed version of the whole story; fasten your seatbelt:

Real estate really got booming in Michigan in the 1960s. The auto industry was really doing well, and it pre-dated the “energy crisis.”

And so there was a lot of booming business in building, and the plumbing codes allowed for lead piping and solder. So lead pipes were put into new construction, everywhere.

Even though the first case of childhood lead poisoning was first described by a physician in 1892 in Brisbane, Australia, and we knew it could be dangerous.

Michigan has a lot of “hard water”. Hard water contains a lot of minerals, with some of those minerals being calcites, primarily calcium oxide and calcium hydroxide.

This is known as the mineral “lime”, which naturally occurs in water pumped out of lime containing aquifers — which is how the aquifers got there in the first place. In other words, when you pump your water out of wells, you get hard water containing dissolved lime.

It builds up in pipes, eventually choking them off, like so:

[ Image source: Wikipedia, Public Domain License ]

Here’s the thing: once it builds up, the water never touches the lead pipes; it only ever touches the lime scale: they are essentially lime pipes with a lead jacket.

Remember that, because it sets the stage for what comes next.

Michigan was pretty progressive, and they’d been doing lead testing, and forcing people to re-pipe houses, and apartment buildings, well ahead of the 1982 ban by the EPA.

Only the testing always passed, if the lead pipes were old enough, because if they were old enough, there was a nice jacket of lime scale keeping the lead from leaching into the water.

This is because they tested the water as it came out of the plumbing. But there was a movement afoot, and it scared the crap out of the real estate industry, to outlaw lead pipes altogether.

It was suggested that if you wanted to sell a house or a building, and it had lead pipes at all, you had to re-pipe with non-lead pipes before the building could be sold.

You can see why this was terrifying to the real estate industry; it would essentially kill all sales, because the old owners would have to bear the expense, and they’d want to pass it on to the new owners as an increase in the price of the building.

Only everyone knew that bumping up the price on the buildings was not an option, because by this time we were well into the “energy crisis”, and what looked before like it would be a slump in real estate because of the declining auto industry would become, well, a disaster. For the real estate industry.

And so they put their pointy little heads together, and decided that the only solution was to prevent the re-piping law from ever being drafted at all.

And they had a way to do that: make “test at the tap” the law of the land. Or at least all of Michigan. And being a big, wealthy, lobby they were able to get their version of the law passed:

Michigan Legislature – Safe Drinking Water Act – Act 399 of 1976

AN ACT to protect the public health; to provide for supervision and control over public water supplies …
[ Blahty Blah Bal Blah ] …
325.1011 Review and certification of laboratories testing water.
Sec. 11. The department shall review and certify laboratories used or intended for use in the testing of water from public water supplies.

And then proceeded to ensconce, as administrative and public policy in that department … test at the tap.

And the real estate industry was thus saved.

Roll the clock forward to Flint Michigan’s water supply…

Flint was having budget problems.

Part of those problems was Detroit, which was in the throes of its own bankruptcy, start finding money everywhere and anywhere they could. And one of the places they could was in what they charged Flint for water.

But Detroit was really hurting for money. A city built on the automotive industry, and rumored to have only slightly less graft and corruption than Chicago, decided Flint was a golden goose.

And they bent them over on the price of the water. Hard.

Flint was now in dire straits. And not the good kind of Dire Straits, where you get your “Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free”. The bad kind.

They had been digging a new supply tunnel for themselves, but they really couldn’t dig that as fast as they needed to dig it, to switch water supplies, so instead they built a purification plant that ran off river water instead, and they … closed one valve, and opened another valve.

Detroit would have to find somewhere else for their money problems.

Perhaps they could consider spending less, instead of revenue-ing more? No one knew, because that approach has never been tried by any taxation supported bureaucracy in the history of mankind; we may never know if that strategy works… but there ends the involvement of Detroit in our little story.

One valve: hard water.

Second valve: lovely, treated, slightly hydrochloric acid-y water, due to the dissociated chlorine.

Until it hit the lime.

And started eating it away.

Exposing the lead pipe surface.

And acid-ing it, too.

And the real estate industry rolls on.

Someone sells a house. Oh look; we have a lead problem. You’re going to have to re-pipe your house because our “test at the tap” shows unacceptably high lead levels.

Someone else sells a house. Oh look; we have another lead problem… another lead problem… another lead problem… another lead problem..

Like a skipping record, and no amount of jolting the table the record player was on would make it move onto the next verse of Stairway To Heaven, so you can go back to making out with your girlfriend.

Like a bad horror move, it keeps on playing, even when you try unplugging the record player: another lead problem… another lead problem… another lead problem…

Here’s the deal, though:

  1. They could have closed valve ‘B’ and reopened valve ‘A’; it would have been damned expensive, but do that, run the water everywhere for a couple of days (even more expensive), and the lime is back.
  2. They could’ve just given everyone water filters.
  3. For most places, the city pipes had already been replaced… the bigger problem was… the supply was clean going into many apartment buildings, but not coming out of the apartment taps, so a temporary fix? Put a supply point outside the building.
  4. They could scream like a stuck pig

They picked door number 4.

And the state, realizing that this problem impacted all of Michigan, not just Flint… also picked door number 4.

Because if they hadn’t?

They couldn’t pretend that this was a Flint problem, instead of admitting that it’s an all of Michigan problem.

It’s an all of Michigan problem.

Dog, meet tail.