Trending Topics

Three Years Later, Water Specialist Says Broken Pipes, Not Lack of Water Treatment, Was Real Cause of the Flint Crisis

Bryce Feighner, DEQ Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Division director, says treating the Flint’s water with phosphates wouldn’t have prevented the contamination crisis. (Photo by Neil Blake |

Although it’s been three years, the struggle for Flint, Mich., is far from over as the lead-tainted city is still in need of new water pipes.

The Environmental Protection Agency approved a $100-million grant for the city to fix its broken water system earlier this year, but the agency now faces a potential budget cut of 31 percent, as ordered by President Donald Trump. With that and other financial hurdles in place, it likely will be years before Flint’s pipes are repaired.

Now, new information has surfaced from a specialist claiming that the spike in water main breaks during the Polar Vortex winters of 2014 and 2015 was one of several overlooked factors that ultimately led to the Flint water crisis, according to a retiring Michigan environmental official.

Bryce Feighner, a water specialist and director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, claims that broken pipes were the primary cause of the water contamination crisis, arguing that treating the city’s water with orthophosohates wouldn’t have fixed the problem.

Feighner, who’s retiring to become a minister this summer, made the remarks on Thursday, April 27, during a talk at Grand Valley State University titled “Flint: What Really Happened?” MLive reported.

The outgoing official argued that an “excessive” number of water main breaks was just one of many “confounding factors that you never hear anyone talk about” in regard to the crisis. Feighner pointed to the fact that Flint experienced a total of 312 water main breaks in 2014 and 277 in 2015, but only 153 in 2013 and 138 in 2016.

Though elevated numbers of water main breaks are common in Midwestern cities facing back-to-back harsh winters, Feighner said Flint was hit especially hard on account of its overburdened water system and general lack of upkeep over the past 20 years.

The exclusion of a corrosion inhibitor when the city switched its water source from Detroit’s system to the highly contaminated Flint River in 2014 is what many officials believe led to the leaching of toxic chemicals into the water system, causing the contamination crisis. But Feighner disputed this claim during his talk Thursday, arguing that a phosphate might have helped control the corrosion, but “I don’t believe it would have prevented this event.”

“You can have the most perfect, noncorrosive water in world — however you choose to define that — and if you have water main breaks, extreme velocities, changes in flow directions, it’s going to strip every coating you’ve created off those pipes over the last several decades,” he said.

“This was a major cause of the event,” he continued.

April 25 marked the three-year anniversary of Flint’s water crisis, a public health disaster triggered by a state-appointed emergency manager’s decision to switch the city’s water source. The bitter holiday was marked with protests, as hundreds of angry demonstrators marched to Flint City Hall to make their voices heard.

Last week’s rally was hosted by organization FlintH2OJustice, MLive reported, during which members shared their demands: a Medicare extension to all current residents and those displaced by the water crisis, an end to resident water bills and the abolition of the state’s emergency manager system altogether.

“Through our banner from Standing Rock, people all over our country, all Americans, they love Flint, also,” said Pastor Bobby Jackson of Mission of Hope, who attended the protests carrying a large white sheet that read “From Standing Rock to Flint.” “We’re not invisible.”

“Everybody thinks they had it fixed … If there’s anything called fake news, the news that everything is fine in Flint is the fakest of fake news,” said CNN moderator Van Jones, who’s also the founder of Green For All, an organization aimed at building a more inclusive green economy strong enough to bring people out of poverty. “Things aren’t fine in Flint, and we’re going to deal with it ourselves.”

The organization has since launched a funding campaign for the residents of Flint titled, “#FixThePipes,” which hopes to raise $500,000 to replace pipes in hundreds of Flint homes, according to Fast Company. The estimated cost of fixing a single home’s water system is about $10,000.

Green For All’s director, Vien Truoong, said the group’s fundraising goal is not a glass ceiling. He told the tech news site that their aim is to bypass the bureaucratic process, which, in his opinion, is void of an awareness for the urgency of the situation.

Through our#FixThePipes campaign, “we thought it was important to remind people that not only are the pipes in Flint not fixed, but that the environmental justices are deeply profound in Flint, and in so many communities around the country that look like Flint,” Truong said.

During his lecture, Feighner repeatedly deflected blame for the crisis away from the state, pointing the finger at the city although multiple reports have showed the DEQ was primarily to blame. In fact, a task force assembled by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder concluded that the department’s mishandling of the crisis actually prolonged its devastating effects. Michigan’s Civil Rights Commission also issued a scathing a report in February, contending that “systemic racism” was largely to blame.

Feighner, a former chief of the waste management and radiological protection office, got involved in the city’s water crisis in late 2014, replacing Liane Shekter Smith, who was ousted as head of the drinking water office, according to MLive. Shekter Smith is one of several DEQ employees facing criminal charges in connection to the crisis.

So far, investigators have charged 13 current and former state and local officials.

When it comes to the people of Flint, Truong said, “Green For All is working to ensure that they won’t be forgotten.”

Back to top