Yesterday, I attended a GM GREEN professional development event hosted by the Flint River Watershed Coalition that brought together educators from Genesee County and community partners from MSU Extension – Flint, Discovering Place, the Genesee County Drain Commissioner’s Office, and General Motors. The professional development was based on the concept of inquiry-based learning – posing questions that participants work to answer, rather than presenting information to be taken as truth.
The agenda was timely and provocative, given that Flint is currently facing a very real environmental crisis. I think most people in America have heard about the water crisis in Flint, MI. And most of those people have heard information that yields pieces of the truth about the situation – a very complicated situation. There’s a lot of information to sift through, let’s be honest. We spent the day learning, testing, and discussing to understand the science and civics behind the crisis firsthand.
Is the Flint River healthy? How do you know?
Yes, according to EPA standards of swimmable, fishable, drinkable (when treated) water. We reviewed years of macroinvertebrate sampling data showing a river capable of supporting aquatic life. We also reviewed historic and recent chemical monitoring, which found no lead in the Flint River and normal conductivity results (a pseudo measure for corrosiveness).
Oils and suspended solids are removed from water through flocculation, a process that involves adding a clarifying agent such as ferric chloride or alum, which lowers the pH of the water, making it acidic. We created experiments modeling this process and conducted a series of pH tests on samples to prove the process works.
How does the City of Flint water system operate?
Water does not leave the tower at the drinking water plant until there is a demand for it, i.e., someone turns on a tap somewhere. Understanding this required a demonstration of how water flows from the tower at the drinking water plant to residences and businesses in Flint. The demonstration showed that the system was designed for a population of 250,000, but Flint only has around 100,000 residents now. This means water can sit in the pipes for a prolonged period of time.
Where did lead come from in the Flint Water System?
Based on our review of chemical monitoring data and understanding of the Flint water system, we know that the lead did not come directly from the Flint River, but rather from the pipes that either service homes and businesses or the pipes in the homes and businesses themselves. Lead was not banned from use in pipes until 1986 with the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act and homeowners are responsible for the service line that brings water to their home, which may be made of lead, as well as all of the pipes and fixtures in the home.
What can you do if you have lead in your drinking water?
Flushing the water out of the pipes for a few minutes after it’s been sitting for a while is an easy and cost effective way to reduce the chances of drinking lead-contaminated water, according to Tom Jones, Civil Engineer for the Genesee County Drain Commissioner’s Office. We also discussed filters, which are effective if lead levels are not above 0.150 mg/L, and reverse osmosis systems, which are expensive and do not produce the same amount of drinkable water as they take in.
The professional development was a powerful way to gather and vet information about a pressing issue in Flint and to model for educators how to equip young people to understand similar issues firsthand. Earth Force will build on this by providing a professional development on our Community Action and Problem-Solving Process, in partnership with the Flint River Watershed Coalition and Discovering Place, at the North Bank Center in downtown Flint on March 26, 2016.
Educators will learn how the Process can help their students drive their own learning and be a part of the solution to their community’s environmental issues. That’s what Earth Force is all about. And yesterday in Flint, I worked with a coalition of people committed to that vision.
Author: Kristen Mueller
Kristen Mueller leads national communications, creating engagement and excitement around Earth Force, and its partners’, hands on, minds on programming. Specializing in traditional media and social media relations, she brings youth voice and leadership to the forefront of the environmental education field.