Exposure to potentially unsafe drinking water, via a tap connected to a municipal water system in a major American city, seemed unthinkable. But the current crisis unfolding in Flint, Michigan—caused by lead leaching into the local water supply—has made just such a situation the focus of national attention. A cursory look at the problems of municipal water infrastructure and aging buildings across the country indicates the potential dangers to be pervasive in cities and suburbs.
"Flint's the catalyst for all this," says John Gazall of Gazall, Lewis & Associates, whose architecture office on the ground floor of Flint's Mott Foundation building looks out on a caravan of news crews driving up and down Saginaw Street all day. "I've got to believe a lot of other cities and towns are going to experience this same problem sooner or later."
In Flint, technical and bureaucratic failures on all levels of government produced a crisis of public confidence in the water supply. Recent testing suggests the issue is affecting local homes in vastly different degrees. In tests of 4,924 Flint homes taken since December, 4,616 (93.7%) meets the EPA's Water Quality Standards, but 371 (7.55%) show lead levels past the EPA's action level of 15 parts per billion (PPB) and 37 (.75%) registered levels of more than 150 PPB, surpassing the rating of filtration systems handed out to residents. Uncertainty about the specific causes of these high results—and the unknown number of others—has fed a broader uncertainty about the safety of the city's water infrastructure, and led city officials to declare a health emergency last December.
Gazall, Lewis & Associates Architects will likely be among the firms tapped to help solve the problem; Gazall's office has designed several high-profile adaptive-reuse projects that have opened since the start of the chain of events that led to today's crisis. Tests revealed there to be no lead in the water at Tenacity Brewing, a fire station-turned-craft brewery renovated in 2015, located in 48503, one of the zip codes thought to be especially at risk. Tenacity issued a statement via Facebook two weeks ago assuring customers that its beer was safe.
"We have filtered our water since the day we started brewing," read the statement. "Our ongoing tests show that we are absolutely lead free. However, we recognize that our customers may have concerns so we want to reiterate that we filter, test, and taste our water every day!"
Likewise for the Flint Farmers' Market, one of the city's revered public spaces, relocated last year to a former newspaper printing and distribution facility renovated by Shannon Easter White of FUNchitecture. The water main was replaced during construction of the printing plant, and all-new PVC and 56 three-compartment sinks supply water to seven restaurants and purveyors of prepared food, as well as to numerous fresh-produce vendors. "The market is lead-free and has always been; it tested free of contamination from the beginning of the crisis," White says. "All of the downtown restaurants—Hoffman's Deli down to Cork on Saginaw and Blackstone's Pub—are fine."
In the past decade, redevelopment in downtown Flint's central business and entertainment district has subsidized the replacement of several other water mains, protecting the restaurants, condos, and offices in Buckham Alley and along Saginaw Street from being directly impacted by the crisis.
The neighborhoods that have received less investment are also among the poorest in the city; some of the most vulnerable areas are houses in neighborhoods built in the 1920s through the '40s, when General Motors rapidly expanded production. Implementation of corrosion control measures may have already eased immediate risks, but the churn of damaging revelations, as well as advocacy on behalf of those who may be harmed, ensure that public mistrust continues—as does the official warning against drinking tap water without a filter.
"They've started adding phosphates back in, so the bath warning has been lifted," White says. "What really is needed is dollars for infrastructure and dollars to mitigate long-term effects for kids. The families who have been the worst affected are those who have had every cards stacked against them from day one."
In other sections of 48503, the most-affected zip code, work is still needed. Gazall's renovation of Oak School, a former public school converted into a senior housing facility in 2014, replaced all of the pipes, sinks, and faucets, as well as adding sustainable features to save energy. But at the Michigan School for the Deaf, an academic addition was attached to an existing dormitory with old fixtures that are now being replaced by the contractor. A problem was discovered two weeks ago, and they immediately began installing new sinks and fixtures.
"That's where we are now," Gazall says. "A lot of businesses are probably on the threshold of being good or bad, but they're still taking steps to put filter systems in to make sure everything is good."
Meanwhile, White is putting her extra time into advocacy, helping to organize relief efforts for the city's most threatened residents. She is working with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint to develop a fund focused on mitigating the long-term health impacts affecting children exposed to lead, and collaborating with Brandon Carr, an NFL player from Flint, who initiated a fund to support infrastructure improvements on the part of homeowners.
"All of the dollars that have come in thus far are donations of water," White says. "We've got water coming out of our ears; it's stored in every warehouse, at the food bank, every cafeteria and gym. You can only do so much with individual bottles."
Last Friday, the State of Michigan allocated $28 million to Flint for bottled water and filters, as well as for health and educational services for kids with elevated blood levels. On January 21st, President Obama directed $80 million in federal aid to the State of Michigan for repairing the state's water infrastructure.
"The reality is, it could've happened to any Midwest rustbelt city, which all have infrastructure from the same time period, built with the same materials that we do for the delivery system," White says.
"There are going to be things happening for years to come that we are unaware of yet," Gazall says. "The unknown is kind of the scary part right now. We can fix the water issue, but it's the other thing we can't fix, which is the perception."
-- Stephen Zacks