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No simple fix: Infrastructure, health issues loom large in Flint water crisis

Story highlights

  • Michigan officials switched Flint's water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014
  • They switched back in October after complaints about dirty water containing high levels of lead
  • Addressing the crisis will involve cleaning the water, upgrading pipes and dealing with health issues

(CNN)What will it take to fix the water crisis in Flint, Michigan?

Most likely, the answer will be a combination of science to clean up the water, costly infrastructure upgrades to replace dangerous pipes, and in-depth investigations to prevent it from happening again. Then there's the serious matter of addressing the long-term health implications of exposing thousands of children to dangerously high levels of lead.
    What's happened already and what still needs to happen prove that there is no simple fix.

    Clean the water

    In April 2014 the state decided to temporarily switch Flint's water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready.
    The river had a reputation for nastiness, and after the switch, residents complained their water looked, smelled and tasted funny.
    Virginia Tech researchers found the water was highly corrosive, and the city switched back to the Lake Huron water supply in October.
    That decision aimed to do the obvious: Ensure that residents no longer get water from the notoriously noxious Flint River.
    But did it mean that the tap water was suddenly safe to drink? No.
    Flint's government ceded as much in its emergency declaration made two months after the switch back.
    "Lead levels remain well above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion in many homes," the city said. "Residents are advised to continue using water filters while long-term solutions are being developed."
    The last part -- about "long-term solutions" -- suggests that getting Flint's water absolutely clean again won't be easy. Lingering lead in the water supply may decrease, but it won't go away instantaneously.
    This is why, three months after the switch, authorities continue to advise people not to drink or bathe in Flint's tap water. Already, more than 27,000 cases of bottled water have been handed out, while over 210,000 new and replacement water filters have been distributed.
    The fact there's no clear end in sight reflects the considerable technical challenges of removing lead that has been in a water supply for months and is coming through what are now contaminated pipes.
    Addressing these challenges will require experts at the top of their game. An element of patience will also be needed, as it will take time to flush out contaminants from Flint's water supply.

    Repair damaged pipes

    And it's not as if this were a little problem, involving mere traces of a potential toxins. No, it's a lot of toxins coming from water, in the Flint River, that is highly corrosive -- 19 times more so than the Lake Huron supply, according to the researchers from Virginia Tech.
    It was so bad that it was eroding the iron water mains, which turned the water brown.
    But iron is one thing. Much worse is the lead from pipes in about half the service lines to Flint homes, lead that seeped into the water that came out of residents' taps.
    Now, those pipes are potentially ruined and dangerous, which is a big reason why there's been no quick fix. To definitively change that, those pipes theoretically would need to be replaced.
    Doing that would be a very complicated, lengthy and expensive ordeal.
    Flint Mayor Karen Weaver estimated earlier this month that it would cost $1.5 billion to replace the water pipes that criss-cross her city, the Detroit News reported. Standing alongside her, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder pledged that he's committed to tackling this and other issues related to the crisis.
    "Let's address it proactively," the governor said, according to video posted on the News' website. "Let's go after the issues both in terms of solving historically what damage has been done and also being proactive to prevent future damage."

    Find out what went wrong

    Multiple investigations have been launched, including by State Attorney General Bill Schuette's office and the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of Michigan, to try to figure out what went wrong.
    One leading possibility is that officials didn't -- either because they forgot to or didn't want to -- treat Flint's water with an anti-corrosive agent when they made the switch from the Lake Huron water supply.
    A class-action lawsuit alleges that the state Department of Environmental Quality is to blame. A 2011 study of the Flint River found that, had the agent been added, water from that waterway could have become safe to drink. Experts said 90% of the problems would have been avoided, at the least.
    The fact this treatment cost about $100 a day galled some, especially coming on top of the fact the April 2014 switch (from Lake Huron to the Flint River) was done in part to save money.
    Still, the anti-corrosive agent is only one thing. What about all those who signed off on the water switch? What about those charged with carrying it out? And what about the fact that it took months -- well after residents first noticed their tap water looked, smelled and tasted funny -- before decisive steps were taken?
    Those are among the many questions now being asked, answers to which could determine who is responsible and what can be done about it.

    Hold people accountable

    Weaver took office two months ago, meaning she wasn't in charge when the big decisions were made. Regardless, those calls were made by state officials -- not those in Flint -- who had taken over Flint's municipal budget amid a financial emergency.
    That means Snyder could be on the hook. Officials in his administration made the call to switch Flint's water supply in what was characterized at the time as a temporary cost-cutting move, and they theoretically were in charge of carrying it out.
    The lawsuit alleges that the DEQ failed to treat the water for corrosion as required by federal law.
    The residents, city workers and others interviewed by CNN for a recent story all hold the state responsible. So, too, do former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and Weaver, his successor. Politicians outside Michigan have chimed in as well, with Hillary Clinton saying Snyder "acted as though he didn't really care" to address the issue in a city that "is poor in many ways and majority African-American," and Sen. Bernie Sanders, now battling Clinton fodr the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, calling on Snyder to resign.
    The governor has defended his actions and promised to do what is necessary to fix the crisis.
    During his State of the State address, Snyder asked legislators for $28 million to fund a series of immediate actions. He also apologized.
    "To begin, I'd like to address the people of Flint. Your families face a crisis, a crisis you did not create and could not have prevented," the governor said. "I am sorry and I will fix it."

    Deal with health ramifications

    Government officials may well be able to make Flint's water clean again. Babies may once more have worry-free bubble baths. Cold water coming out of the tap could be both healthy and refreshing. And doing dishes may no longer be dangerous.
    But even after all that happens, what about those who drank the water way back when -- when the government wrongly insisted it was safe?
    Right now, the extent of the damage is unclear. But when studies have shown lead levels in Flint's water being 10 times higher than previously measured, it can't be good.
    The number of Legionnaires' disease cases has spiked in Genesee County in the two years since Flint switched its water supply from the Great Lakes, Snyder announced last month. Nick Lyon, the state's director of health and human services, said this increase cannot all be attributed to this switch, since not all those with Legionnaires' got Flint water -- but it's hard not to acknowledge the timing.
    Then there's the very real danger of lead exposure. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, while exposure to lead isn't good for anyone, "no safe blood lead level in children has been identified." The Mayo Clinic points out that lead poisoning "can severely affect mental and physical development" and can even be fatal at high levels.
    For months, officials claimed all was well.
    Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who works in the pediatric ward of Flint's Hurley Medical Center, recalled tests showing toddlers' blood lead levels had doubled and, in some cases, tripled. She told CNN that state officials spent a week denouncing these findings and added that "there was almost ... blinders on," before they admitted the findings' validity.
    How much damage this lead has already done, to how many children, remains unknown. There is a sense that it's a real threat that must be addressed, why is why groups like the Flint Child Health & Development Fund have arisen to raise money to "address and mitigate the short and long-term impacts."
    "If there was ever a time to invest in our children," Hanna-Attisha said on the fund's website, "it is now."