Crisis in Flint: One PE’s Thoughts

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.

By Michael S. Ellegood, P.E.

By now, all America is aware of the water crisis in Flint Michigan. The city, under management by a state-appointed official, changed the water supply from Detroit to the Flint River. The change in the water source caused lead and iron oxides to leach from delivery pipes and create a health hazard for thousands of Flint residents. A man-made disaster!

Since Flint is largely African-American, the situation has racial overtones. Since Flint is Democratic while under the management of a Republican governor’s administration, the situation has political overtones.

So the investigations begin.

  • The Republican-controlled US Congress accuses the US Environmental Protection Agency of ignoring the problem and letting it become a crisis.
  • Democratic presidential candidates tour the city and promise help (if elected)
  • The lawyers are lined up, lawsuits in hand.
  • The state Republican administration vows to fix the problem if it just didn’t cost $1.5 billion to replace the pipes.

It seems that the public has heard from everyone except engineers.

  • Was a competent civil engineer even consulted before the water source was switched?
  • What recommendations did he or she make?
  • Was the advice followed? Or as too often happens, not sought or ignored?

Any competent civil engineer knows that when a water source is changed, water chemistry changes as well. Mineral deposits in an old delivery system precipitate out, enter the water, and can have significant affect on water clarity, turbidity, taste, appearance, and, in this case, potability.

During my years as a county engineer and public works director, I put a stop to some “good ideas” before a nonprofessional directed their execution. Some of these “ideas” had powerful political interests behind them. They all required me to expend political capital. But I did it knowing the political risk to my career and unwilling to take a chance on the public safety that I am sworn to uphold.

So, where were the engineering professionals in Flint? Why have we not heard from them?

Perhaps, because over the years, we engineers have been relegated to the status of technicians instead of respected professionals and team members in forming public policy. Perhaps, we have brought this on ourselves by remaining behind the scenes, by not engaging in public policy discussion. Perhaps we need to be more visible, more outspoken, and more engaged in public process.

As a public works director, I felt it necessary to elbow myself into visibility. I spoke publically every chance I got. I did not fear the press. Instead I engaged with the news media (actually co-opting them); I personally conducted public meetings especially on controversial projects. I worked with all of the elected officials I could, regardless of party affiliation or level of government. I respected them and earned their respect.

We, as professional engineers have worked hard to earn the professional suffix PE. Now let’s use it to help shape public policy.

Michael S. Ellegood, P.E., is the former public works director and county engineer for Maricopa County, Arizona. He is now a consultant with PSMJ Resources and provides project management training and consulting to public works agencies across North America.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.

Published February 25, 2016 by Michael S. Ellegood, P.E.

Filed under: Flint Water,


Between this, and other utility mishaps like the leak at the natural gas storage site in Aliso Canyon just north of Los Angeles, is it time to push for a PE to be in responsible charge of these type of projects?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 12:15 PM by Mike Delaney, P.E.

Hello Michael:
I had the same reaction that you had and then I read about Professor Edwards from Virginia Tech and how his proactive efforts actually helped get to the bottom of this and that the water customers in Flint actually requested that he be included in the group that was tasked to solve this problem. I was disappointed to see that, as so many academicians today, he is not a P.E.; however, his activities are in the very best tradition of protection of the public's health, safety & welfare that we all ascribe to.
Mike Fink, P.E.
Licensed Member, Indiana Society of Professional Engineers
Licensed Member, NSPE-Colorado

Tuesday, April 05, 2016 3:46 PM by

Today, 2 MDEQ employees, a city employee charged in Flint water crisis.  A search for names in the Michigan PE database reveals an apparent match for 2 of the 3 as being licensed engineers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 12:51 PM by J McPherson, PE

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