Many of Flint, Michigan’s 100,000 residents are dealing with water polluted by lead. The issue began in April 2014, when—in an effort to save money—the city switched from metro Detroit’s water to water piped in from the Flint River. A new report by Automotive News, however, describes how General Motors’ engine plant in Flint noticed the problem and switched water sources in Dec. 2014—after many of its engine blocks had already been corroded.
Like the residents of Flint, GM noticed the impact of switching water immediately. While residents noted discoloration and a foul taste, GM found that the plant’s engine blocks used in the Chevrolet Cruze and Colorado pickup, as well as the Buick Enclave, were showing clear signs of rusting after exiting the machining process.
Further inspection found that a high level of chloride used to treat the river water was to blame. Having voiced its findings to the city, GM sought a short-term fix while a longer-term solution was being considered. The automaker began self-remediation—including reverse osmosis and trucking in haulers of water each day to dilute the chloride. Naturally this was time consuming and expensive, not to mention the risk of running out of clean water on a given day. And so an alternate plan was quickly put into action.
Thanks to its location, GM lobbied and eventually managed to switch its plant’s tainted water to that of the neighboring Flint Townships’, an area still using Detroit’s city water. As Automotive News noted, this was only an option due to the factory once lying within that township, prior to it being annexed by the city in the 1970s. This meant the infrastructure was in place for a relatively quick transition to the unpolluted water supply of Flint Township.
It was at this time GM’s Flint employees began voicing their concern over the city’s water supply: “If it’s too corrosive for an engine, what’s it doing to the inside of a person?” Automotive News quoted Dan Reyes, president of UAW Local 599, as saying.
Yahoo Autos spoke to GM spokesman Tom Wickham to learn more: “The connection to the new water line—that was right across the street from the engine plant—was completed by the end of December 2014,” he said. “The engine facility is unique because of the machining process, where there’s direct contact with the water. In our other facilities in the city (assembly and stamping) there was no contact, and so we had filtration systems put in place for drinking and ice machines after it was noted that there was lead in water.”
Wickham says that even today, as the crisis is ongoing and President Obama has issued the state $80 million in emergency relief, morale at the company is high: “It’s deeply personal to many of the employees that not only work at the plant but also live near the plant. They know what to do in terms of filtration,” Wickham continued, “and many of them have been helping out, volunteering and donating water bottles and filters to those in need.”
Indeed, General Motors itself donated $50,000 last year to buy water filters to distribute among residents, including the city’s schools: “The children were told they couldn’t drink the water out of the drinking fountains and we wanted to make sure that the classrooms had water that was safe for them to use,” Wickham says.
While many of the plant’s 7,200 employees are still directly affected by the pollution, a lucky break in geographical location and some heads up planning helped the facility, at least, evade the crisis.
When will the residents of Flint be relieved from their troubles? That’s a difficult one to answer. An interim connection to metro Detroit’s water, prior to a planned connection with Karegnodi Water Authority later this year, cannot reverse the corrosion that has already occurred since April 2014. Dosing the water supply with phosphates will help—and that’s something the city has started doing—but it could take two to six months for any significant results to take place. Installing new liners inside the corroded pipes is also an option, however obtaining the correct sizing of those liners is said to be an issue. That would mean entirely replacing some 15,000 service lines, costing between $4,000 and $8,000 per home.
Needless to say, a fix for the residents in Flint won’t occur anytime soon.