The Flint water crisis, which involved the poisoning of the local municipal water supply with lead that left residents unable to drink their tap water for over a year and likely caused the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in the area, could prompt big changes for Michigan’s water utilities. In October 2016, a bipartisan committee concluded its investigation into the issue, and proposed some sweeping changes.
One proposed change is the appointment of a 3-person emergency management team to monitor and respond to health issues, as opposed to the current system which requires only a single state-appointed emergency manager. Other proposed changes include prohibiting any emergency manager from switching potable water sources without approval from a series of designated stakeholders, making emergency managers and other employees criminally liable for failing to properly address potential health hazards, establishing a “State Employee Ombudsman” inside the state Legislature to strengthen industry oversight, moving drinking water responsibility from the DEP to the Department of Health and Human Services, creating an alert system to notify residents of health hazards, and making the state’s lead pipe standards more stringent.
These proposed changes, if adopted, will definitely impact the emergency preparedness practices of the state’s water utilities. New regulatory oversight structures, emergency manager responsibilities, approval hierarchies, and infrastructure regulations will need to be incorporated into existing plans. In addition to updating emergency plans, water utilities will need to ensure employees are properly acclimated to the new protocols. This should be done via training, and then by utilizing exercises and drills to allow employees to practice operating within the new framework. And since the Flint water crisis was caused by human error instead of a natural disaster, drill scenarios should include this type of ‘man made’ situation time to time.