The problems with the quality of drinking water in Flint, Michigan, are not necessarily an isolated collection of failures. From a technical standpoint, the potential for lead leaching into drinking water systems in many places in this country is a real issue. That potential is compounded if we see a repeat of the range of bureaucratic failures that occurred in Flint.

The basic conditions that exist in Flint are not unique; they are prevalent at least in the older water systems of the Northeast and Midwest. (National Geographic). As that article points out, the potential for leaching of lead has been known for many years, and EPA enacted regulations twenty-five years ago intended to avoid the problem. However, the mere fact that applicable regulations are in place clearly is not sufficient if those regulations are not diligently enforced. And compliance must be checked by periodic inspection, monitoring, and testing. (Environmental Leader).

The problems in Flint were not inevitable, but were essentially caused and then exacerbated by the failures of some to comply with regulatory obligations and of others to enforce those requirements. Initially, the lead problem probably could have been avoided or at least substantially limited when the source of drinking water changed from Lake Heron to the Flint River if regulatory requirements had been followed to evaluate the potential for the river water to cause leaching. The fact that state and local officials apparently failed to anticipate potential problems was compounded by the failure of federal, state and local officials to respond to the problems quickly when they became apparent, or even to respond with genuine concern to initial complaints from City residents. Instead, those complaints were reviewed with something bordering on disdain. (New York Times). While the response to known or suspected problems presumably would not have prevented the initial leaching, a prompt and substantive response would have prevented lead exposures from occurring for so long a period of time, especially for the most at-risk residents, the children. Indeed, State officials were providing their employees in Flint with bottled water for several months before publicly acknowledging the problem last October. (CBS and ABC).

Conditions similar to that in Flint are present in many places, but so are the protections, if government observes and follows them. The ultimate fix – that of removing all lead pipe from these systems – is extraordinarily expensive and probably unrealistic. However, applicable rules do require steps that should be taken and which can be expected to prevent similar problems at manageable cost. What Flint demonstrates is that at all levels – local, state and federal – the requirements of practical safeguards were simply not appreciated or followed.