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Flint Water Crisis

Clean water is an essential part of human life, and in New England we often take it for granted as we seem to have an abundance of it. However, many parts of the world and even the United States are not so lucky. Flint, Michigan is one of these places, as the city of Flint has been without clean water since 2014. Since April of 2014, lead and other toxins have been found in water in Flint. Clean water is supposed to be guaranteed for all Americans by way of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) which was instituted in 1974, however in the case of Flint, the government failed the people of Flint.

Most of the Flint water crisis came as a result of poor engineering and ethical practices.

Summary of relevant actions:

About Flint

To understand how the Flint water crisis happened, it is important to understand the past and current state of the city.

In the early 20th century, the automobile industry was booming in Michigan, especially in Flint.

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Flint was home to major manufacturing factories to big name companies such as Chevrolet, Buick and GM (Brody, 2016). The only problem with having many factories in the early 1900s is that there were not many environmental regulations in place to regulate these factories. The Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of pollutants that can be dumped into United States water; it keeps our water clean (Antypas, F. 2019). However, the Clean Water Act was not passed until 1977, meaning that for the majority of the 20th century, the automobile factories in Flint could dump toxic pollutants into the nearby Flint River.

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Today, Flint is a poverty stricken city, with poverty rates of around 40% (Guyette, 2018). In 2012, the city was under such a financial crisis, that the government enacted an emergency manager law, which enabled the state to take complete control of Flint governance (Guyette, 2018). This meant that the state government of Michigan was appointed to manage the city of Flint in order to get it out of its financial troubles.

How the Problem Happened

On April 25, 2014, Flint, Michigan discontinued purchasing treated water from the Detroit Water and Sewer Department as they were planning to switch to a closer water source (Hana-Attisha et al, 2016). The only problem was that pipeline installation for the new water source was going to take approximately 2 years, and so a temporary water source was needed. In an effort to save money ($5 million dollars to be exact) the emergency manager of Flint decided to use water from the nearby Flint River (Hana-Attisha et al 2016). As we know, the Flint River had many more dangerous pollutants in it. The water was being processed by an existing treatment plant. This treatment plant is the place where our first engineering failure occurred. There were engineering and research studies conducted at this plant, however the water utility did not implement corrosion control (Pieper et al, 2017).

Flint is an older city, set up in the times of the industrial revolution in the early 1900’s. The water system in Flint has also been in place for a long time, and although bits and pieces of the system have been replaced, it is very hard to replace and entire water system as they are often found underground- intertwined throughout the city. Because the pipes in Flint, Michigan were old, some corrosion occurred during the years, as shown in figure 1 (Pieper et al, 2017). If properly treated water were to flow through these pipes, then it wouldn’t be a problem. However, the water treatment plant did not include orthophosphate during their treatment of the water. Orthophosphate controls metal corrosion by coating the pipes as the water passes through it (Pieper et al, 2017). Without Orthophosphate, lead embedded in the pipes was able to find its way into the water (Pieper et al, 2017). Many studies performed on the Flint Water Crisis conclude that the whole disaster could have been prevented if this engineering failure was not overlooked (Pieper et al, 2017).

Another engineering failure that occurred during the Flint water crisis was a failure of the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instituted the Lead and Copper Rule to control lead exposure of the public (Brody, 2014). Without getting into the details of this rule, Flint had failures of the LCR that they did not report initially. A Flint resident whose child was having health problems participated in the 2015 LCR water testing and the subsequent follow-up tests, revealing first draw lead concentrations of 104 ?g/L in February, 397 ?g/L in March, and 707 ?g/L in April (Pieper et al, 2017). These kinds of test clearly suggest that the child’s lead levels were steadily getting worse. However, for some reason, the results of this tests were not included in the LCR report (Pieper et al, 2017). This is clearly an engineering and ethical failure.


  1. Harris, C. Pritchard, M. Rabins, M. James, R. Englehardt E. “Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases-Case 16: Hurrican Katrina”. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. 2014. 5th Edition. Text.
  2. Sills, G. Vroman, N. Wahl, R. Schwanz, N. “Overview of New Orleans Levee Failures: Lessons Learned and Their Impact on National Levee Design and Assessment”. JOURNAL OF GEOTECHNICAL AND GEOENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING ASCE. 2008. Pg 556-565. Web.
  3. Mittal, A. “Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project.” United States Government Accountability Office. 2005. Web.

Cite this page

Flint Water Crisis. (2019, Nov 28). Retrieved from

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