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Amount of lead in Flint’s water falls below federal limit as work continues

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Protesters Demonstrate Against Donald Trump's Visit To Flint Michigan Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The amount of lead in the Flint water supply has fallen below federal limits, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said yesterday. In a letter to the city’s mayor, officials said that during the period from July to December last year, the 90th percentile of lead concentrations in Flint’s water was 12 parts per billion. That’s down from 20 parts per billion during the previous six-month period, and under the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion.

The assessment marks a turnaround for the beleaguered city, which declared a state of emergency in 2015 after finding elevated levels of lead in children’s blood. Michigan state officials tested water at 368 sites in the area, stating that the lead levels recorded were now in line with similarly sized cities in the US.

Flint switched its water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in 2014. The change was designed to save money, but left residents drinking water that had been contaminated by lead leached from old pipes in the city’s sewerage system. In October 2015, a study by the city’s Hurley Medical Center found that the switch had dramatically increased levels of the poisonous metal in children’s blood, and 12 people died during a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak believed to have been connected to the water. In January 2016 — a month after a state of emergency was declared in Flint — the EPA ordered that the state of Michigan intervene.

Karen Weaver, the mayor of Flint, said that the announcement was “encouraging,” but that the city was “not out of the woods yet.” Republican governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, also pledged to keep working on the problem. “The remarkable improvement in water quality over the past year is a testament to all levels of government working together and the resilient people of Flint helping us help them through participation in the flushing programs," Snyder said, noting that there was “still more work to do in Flint.”

But even with the new assessment, several locals told the Associated Press that they still weren’t convinced that Flint’s water was safe to drink. “There's still lead in the system,” resident Melissa Mays said. "Especially with disruptions, main breaks — pieces of lead scale will be breaking off until these pipes are replaced.” Others have questioned the methods environmental officials used to gauge lead levels, arguing that the parts per billion vary wildly depending on sample location.

Marc Edwards, a researcher at Virginia Tech who helped identify Flint’s lead problem in 2015, told the Detroit News the announcement was a positive step that “indicates real progress by the state and feds in addressing what was once a public health crisis.” But Edwards said Flint still had a lot to do in order to upgrade its old infrastructure, and called into question the Environmental Protection Agency’s limits on dangerous metals in water supplies. “We have also learned that meeting the EPA lead and copper rule is simply not good enough, either in Flint or anywhere else,” Edwards said. “As long as bottled water and filters are provided by the state, residents should continue to use them to get extra health protection, while the infrastructure upgrades occur and water quality continues to improve.”

The state of Michigan has to replace at least 7 percent of its lead-lined pipes by June 30th, after its water was measured to be over the federal lead limit in the first six months of 2016, but it may not be forced to completely overhaul the system if it remains under the required parts per million. Nonetheless, the state says it will continue with the task, and has set aside $27 million to pay for it. This week’s assessment also allows Michigan to stop contributing toward Flint residents’ water bills, having previously provided payments dating back to the water supply switch in 2014.

The US government was criticized for its slow reaction to the problem in Flint, a city that ranks among the poorest in the country, and has a majority African-American population. The issue flitted back and forth from the spotlight, as President Obama and the presidential candidates visited the city to discuss the crisis, before moving on. Meanwhile, the state of Michigan began bringing criminal charges against city officials who did not do enough to study the Flint River’s quality before switching the city’s water supply.