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Did Flint miss easy water warnings?

Identifying a possible missed chance leading up to the Flint water crisis, the city’s former mayor wonders why an outside water manager didn’t do more to identify the peril earlier.

Veolia Water North America was hired for $40,000 by the state-appointed overseer of the city of Flint in February, 2015, to look at amounts of TTHM, a pollutant caused by water treatment, in the city’s drinking water.

But at the same time Veolia was probing the level of TTHM, the Environmental Protection Agency was independently following up on a complaint from a resident regarding lead in the drinking water in Flint. According to an EPA report, a sample from a Flint home last February “exceeded the capability of the instrument to measure.”

Lead is considered to be highly dangerous, especially to children, and has now been determined to have been rampant in the city’s water supply after it changed water providers in April, 2014. In January of this year, federal and state emergencies were declared in the city. 

Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling asks why Veolia, which manages more than 500 water systems in the U.S., did not make a connection to a potential lead hazard.

“The contract for Veolia was put in the context of water quality,” he said. “And in their report, they mention iron in the water, but I look back on it and scratch my head and wonder why the experts were thinking about phosphate corrosion and iron and water quality and didn’t connect the dots to the lead threat.”

“Our scope of work was to look exclusively at TTHM,” said Scott Edwards, a spokesman for Veolia. “They were having increased complaints of water odor and color, and that was what we looked at. The city was looking at lead, and the EPA was also looking at lead in a few homes.“

Veolia was the only company to respond to a request for proposals to complete a water probe. The company cites a 97 percent contract renewal rate but has had problems in the past, including the termination of a $1.5 billion, 20-year contract after eight years in Indianapolis and a citation from the state of Kentucky for improper safeguards at a water plant following an oil spill.

“I was aware of a discussion of Veolia’s work,” Walling said. “But this was going pretty directly to a scope of work the city needed done, quickly. And Veolia appeared to have the personnel and capability to perform that.”

Veolia’s March 2015 report on Flint asserts that the water complied with state and federal standards and suggested changes in water treatment and a plan for public availability by city and state officials regarding the water. The group projected the changes would cost at the most a little over $1 million annually with implementation at $1.95 million.

“The City of Flint has made a number of good decisions regarding treatment changes that have improved water quality,” Veolia states in the report.

For that $40,000 fee, Veolia has been dragged into numerous lawsuits against the state and other players connected to the water crisis, a connection that will likely cost millions in legal fees if it cannot extract itself from the proceedings.

Edwards, the Veolia spokesman, declined to speak about the court cases.