Last month, a 100-page report detailing measures that needed to be taken to ensure the safety of public drinking water in Flint was delivered to President Barack Obama. The report, written by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, included the collaboration of Rosina Bierbaum, a University of Michigan professor of Natural Resources and Environment.

President Obama mandated the creation of the report in the wake of the Flint water crisis and wavering public trust in safe drinking water. The aim was to help eradicate all remaining water quality issues and it called for short- and long-term measures to be taken in order to guarantee safe drinking water for all Americans.

As a member of PCAST, Bierbaum co-chaired the group of PCAST members and experts addressing drinking water safety. This working group spearheaded the report, which concluded that, although largely safe, American drinking water quality could be further improved by a few measures, such as more succinct communication across agencies and real-time water quality monitoring.

At the last PCAST meeting in Washington, D.C. on November 18, Bierbaum presented the goals of the report.

“Our real focus is on advancing science and technology,” she said. “Not to micromanage how it gets done.”

In addition to presenting the research findings Bierbaum included her policy recommendations.

“The federal government must lead but must clearly involve state, cities and drinking water experts to improve methodologies that can do comparative risk assessments of contaminant mixtures and across the complete water system,” she said last November.

Bierbaum added that the recommendations should supplement the ongoing measures under the Safe Drinking Water Act. She said she encourages collaboration in order to aid the collection and coordination of data, specifically pointing to water systems not currently under regulatory oversight. 

When she presented in November Bierbaum stated that America’s water system is generally in good shape but still is not totally sound. She detailed measures that can be taken to totally ensure good water quality, like the engagement of the citizen science coordinator and more detailed water quality analysis.

“Every agency has a citizen science coordinator, and we think engaging citizen science is really important for two reasons,” Bierbaum said. “One to educate the public about their water systems and indeed most water systems in the country are safe, and second to collect information from taps and well water we might not otherwise procure.”

Mary Heinen, a Flint native and University alum and staffer, spoke in support of Bierbaum’s work.

“I applaud folks that are working on this report and that are working to try and correct some of the horrible human rights abuses that have happened in Flint and I respect anybody that is thinking forward and trying to figure out what to do from here on out,” Heinen said.

Heinen also said that Flint’s ties to the University may be at play in getting the attention it needs.

“I think the communities of Flint and Dearborn and Ann Arbor — Southeast Michigan — that have the University of Michigan in their neighborhoods are definitely at an advantage,” Heinen said. “Because those are folks from the neighborhood that really care about what happens and I think it’s imperative that local communities and local schools and colleges and universities and churches and community groups and activists join together with a long-range plan and really look at this and try to figure out what to do and how they can help.”

She also said — while this report helps the situation in Flint — the water crisis was still poorly handled and crises of this magnitude always have a tedious recovery process.

“I’m skeptical about anybody that thinks what has happened can be cleaned up easily,” Heinen said. “I think it’s a human rights disaster … I think the similarities between Hurricane Katrina and Flint are glaring to me.”

While Bierbaum’s work on the PCAST report is an encouraging step in the ongoing Flint water crisis, political gridlock still plagues progress in resolving the Flint water crisis.

Gov. Rick Snyder delayed the passage of a bill that aligns with the PCAST report in taking specific measures to ensure adequate water quality. By failing to sign it, Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee (D–5) released a statement on Thursday echoing Heinen’s concerns.

“The Governor should sign this bill immediately,” Kildee wrote in a press release on Thursday. “Michiganders are sick and tired of waiting for the governor to step up to the plate and help fix this man-made crisis he created in the first place.”

The statement also shared Bierbaum’s intentions of guaranteeing the best water quality possible.

“Right now, a common sense bill that would help prevent another water crisis is with the Governor awaiting his action,” Kildee wrote. “The Legislature passed the bill unanimously — and all the Governor needs to do is sign it into law.”

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