Guest Column | April 28, 2016

WWEMA Window: A Tale Of Two Cities — Flint, MI And Camden, NJ

Vanessa Leiby

By Vanessa Leiby

BenFranklinBridge

The Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) held its 43rd Annual Washington Forum April 12 to 14 in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with many other water groups who gathered to celebrate Water Week (April 10 to 16) in the nation’s capital.  For one week, manufacturers, regulators, utility managers, associations, legislators, engineers, and academics came together to discuss the nation’s water infrastructure and how to more effectively protect public health and the environment. Nowhere was this critical role more evident than in two presentations made during the WWEMA Washington Forum. This is the tale of two cities — Flint, MI and Camden, NJ.

WWEMA’s conference opened with a presentation by Pan Ji, a doctoral candidate at the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech and a member of the Flint Water Study Team that was responsible for bringing the Flint water crisis to national attention. She provided a compelling synopsis of the events that took place over 18 months affecting 100,000 people, including 9,000 children. In addition to excessively high lead levels that occurred when the city switched from Detroit water to Flint River water without adequate corrosion control in place, the city also experienced elevated levels of Legionella bacteria due to low chlorine levels and other factors that led to 87 cases of Legionellosis and 10 deaths. In spite of repeated assurances from state and federal officials that the water was safe to drink, the local industries, the Flint Water Study Team, and the people of Flint all knew otherwise. The Flint Water Study Team became the voice for the residents of the City of Flint, who suffered from disinvestmentdeindustrialization, depopulation, and urban decay, as well as high rates of crime, unemployment, and poverty. The common response to this crisis from many in the water industry and beyond is, “How could this happen and why was it allowed to go on for so long?” While many might hope that this was just a horrible situation gone terribly wrong, the reality is that there are likely more Flint’s out there. So the question becomes, how do we make sure this does not happen again?

Hope can be found in the presentation made by Andy Kricun, PE, BCEE, Executive Director and Chief Engineer of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, who spoke at the end of the WWEMA Washington Forum. Like Flint, Camden, NJ suffers from high rates of unemployment; the majority of the citizens live below the national poverty line, making it America’s poorest city; it suffers from aging infrastructure (the combined sewer system is over 100 years old) and poor urban planning; and in 2012, Camden had the highest violent crime rate in the U.S. But, unlike Flint, the leadership in Camden saw an opportunity to become the “Clean Water Utility of the Future.”

Rather than strive for permit compliance as the ceiling for its operations, the leaders decided that it should be the floor. Although the Authority does not own the Camden wastewater facility, they saw an opportunity to partner with the city and through the use of state revolving loan funds the Authority set about optimizing water quality, minimizing odors, achieving cost efficiencies to reduce rates, reducing the carbon footprint and implementing green energy initiatives, implementing green infrastructure, and providing community and environmental service leadership to the rate payers and the clean water industry. Through collaboration with the city, the state, local businesses, and non-profit organizations, the city staged a remarkable turnaround and revitalization. Gardens were created for the citizens, a long-buried stream was day-lighted and incorporated into recreation opportunities for the community, and the riverfront was accessed through the creation of several new parks. Collectively, the organizations addressed flooding, contaminated sites, air emissions, recycling, environmental justice issues, and environmental education.  What’s more, doing the right thing was also the smart thing! These efforts resulted in the reduction of regulatory liability and fines, reduced litigation from residents, improvements in public perception, and improved efficiencies that not only allowed for improved environmental performance and community service initiatives but also significant cost savings.

Camden succeeded because people in leadership wanted to do the right thing and they effectively used the resources and tools available to them to make it happen. The water industry has the tools, resources, and technologies at its fingertips to embrace effective utility management. It just needs the right people and the right vision to make it happen.

Vanessa M. Leiby is the Executive Director of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA). Since 1908, WWEMA has been the voice of the technology provider in the water and wastewater industry. More information about WWEMA can be found at www.wwema.org.

Image credit: "Benjamin Franklin Bridge," Jim, the Photographer © 2009, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0