Water quality officials are set to meet privately in Chicago Tuesday to discuss Flint's water, but activists warn it's way too early to declare it safe, despite improved test results in recent months.
"Tests that show the water is OK in one place don't mean that it will be OK in another place or that it will be OK the next day if it's tested in the same place," said Laura Sullivan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Flint's Kettering University.
Dangerously high lead levels have plagued Flint's drinking water system since 2014, when state-appointed emergency managers approved a switch in its water source. The crisis has garnered international headlines, prompted a criminal probe and numerous lawsuits, and forced all Flint residents to drink bottled water to avoid exposure.
Sullivan was one of several activists who joined the ACLU of Michigan today in urging caution ahead of a Tuesday Water Quality Summit in Chicago, where officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Environment Protection Agency will discuss the Flint water situation.
Both the MDEQ and EPA have been widely criticized for the handling of Flint's water situation. The summit also will include Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech who led a research team that is credited with identifying the problem in Flint when state officials were insisting the water quality was fine.
Gov. Rick Snyder told the Free Press last month that Flint's water was improving but wouldn't say whether the state should stop delivering bottled water.
"That’s not a decision for me to make in terms of the science of this," Snyder said. "In mid-January we’ll be having a summit, a panel of experts reviewing all the data....The good part is the data does show a lot of progress compared to what it was, it does show it below the federal action levels, but again, let’s let the experts..."
Michael J. Steinberg, an ACLU lawyer who is litigating two lawsuits related to Flint's water, said that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires two, six-month rounds of testing before a determination can be made and even then, other factors must be considered.
"The mere fact that a couple of months of testing might bring the levels below 15 parts per billion does not mean the state is complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act," Steinberg said. "Any suggestion by the state tomorrow that the water is safe is not only wrong, it's irresponsible."
One of the ACLU's suits demands that the state replace all lead pipes in Flint, though very few have actually been replaced to date. Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, the recently retired president and CEO of Mott’s Children Health Center in Flint, said Flint's system has special challenges, including areas where water sits in pipes for long periods of time, dissolving the chlorine that guards against bacteria growth.
"The problem is this, the water distribution system is not stable," Reynolds said. "We haven't even done one year of sampling during all seasons to say that water quality will be safe, healthy and consistent."
Reynolds also noted that Flint is expected to switch water sources again, from the Detroit system to the new Karegnondi Water Authority, which is completing a pipeline from Lake Huron. That water will be treated at the Flint Water Treatment plant, where operators are inexperienced.
"Let's get through a couple of seasons before we can say that the water of Flint is consistently safe," he said.
Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan agreed.
"We're here to say, not so fast," she said.