Published: January 12, 2017

    Pelican Water Scholarship 1st Place Winner: Martin Coleman

    Pelican Water received several eloquent entries for our bi-annual College Scholarship Contest, but Martin Coleman’s essay Preventing Crisis over Crisis Reaction: The New American Model stood alone in its meticulous research and its impassioned plea for community education. Using his experience as an environmental engineer, Martin outlined a plan to help communities directly engage with utilities to solve the water infrastructure problem in America. We are honored to name Martin Coleman as our 1st place scholarship contest winner.

    Martin Coleman earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering from the University of Central Florida, where he graduated cum laude and conducted extensive research with UCF’s Storm Water Academy and Center for Hydroscience Analysis, Modeling, & Predictive Simulations. He continues to cultivate his knowledge of water treatment as a graduate research assistant at the UCF Drinking Water Research Lab. His $3000 prize will help fund his graduate-level education at UCF.

    Preventing Crisis over Crisis Reaction: The New American Model
    By Martin Coleman, EIT

    The water crisis in Flint, Michigan recently put a spotlight on our national lead problem. What are some ways to help spread the word about the dangers of lead in America’s water supply and how this water crisis is not just limited to Flint?

    Earth’s dynamic processes and how they all interconnect are scientific marvels. It is often difficult to become an expert of even just one of Earth’s complex cycles. These cycles are so naturally interwoven into our daily lives but even a slight imbalance can cause detrimental effects. It can be an arduous journey to restore equilibrium. But this process of problem solving is necessary to protect our future and the future of generations to come. Sadly, some processes are misinterpreted and this can cause tragedy to strike. In 2014, Flint, Michigan made an executive decision to temporarily use the poor quality water from the Flint River as its main supply while a pipeline was being built to provide long term water from Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). This switch was made mostly because of budget restrictions that forced the utility to choose between money, regulatory standards, and public safety. The quality of the Flint River has been negatively impacted mostly due to industrial waste contamination and was substantially more corrosive than the previous source. As the Flint River water was introduced into Flint’s distribution system, the water corroded the network which dispersed lead into the water. In some residences the concentration of lead in the so-called drinking water could be considered hazardous waste and extremely toxic to humans. Federal regulation allowed the water to not be treated with corrosion inhibitors for up to 6 months while testing was on going. This lag imparted by legislation allowed the lead levels to rise and the water to quickly become hazardous.

    The lingering elephant in the room seems to be how carless actions leading up to the Flint water crisis could have been avoided. Traditionally, utilities can conduct pilot scale studies determining corrosion rates and corrosion inhibiter effectiveness. These studies are typically conducted on corrosion racks, or pilot scale flow networks, where the water is exposed to metal strips (coupons). After a set time, the coupons are weighed to measure the amount of metal that was removed and dispersed into the water due to corrosion. Another method uses electronic probes placed in pipes with test water flowing over their measuring end. The electronic probes can instantly predict the corrosion rates. For a system with lead pipes and soldering, corrosion inhibitors become vital to lessen the amount of toxic lead entering the drinking water. Had a similar study been performed on the Flint River water, the escalated lead levels during the Flint water crisis could have been avoided and public safety would not have been jeopardized.

    The Flint water crisis may have seemed like an isolated event, however is a common issue that is being investigated all over the nation. I am currently conducting corrosion analysis for two utilities; one located along the east coast of Florida and the second in a suburban area near Atlanta, Georgia. The Florida plant is investigating a new filtration system using reverse osmosis and desires to evaluate its impact on the corrosivity of the effluent water. The plant located in Georgia is investigating iron corrosion observed in some of their storage tanks post aeration. These studies will help reduce the risk of the devastating effects of corrosion on a water system as well as public health concerns.

    The national water crisis is not limited to corrosion and heavy metal concentrations in drinking water. Another potential issue while treating drinking water is the formation of disinfection by-products (DBPs). DBPs are a result of the reactions between disinfectants and organics in water. The two common forms of DBPs are trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs). DBPs are suspected carcinogens and have fallen under scrutiny in recent years. Water treatment must be optimized to supply adequate disinfection while also minimizing the formation of DBPs. DBP formation was ignorantly disregarded when Flint operators dosed high levels of disinfectants in attempt to remediate the water crisis. When fecal coliform and pathogen precursors were detected in the Flint River water, the public was told to boil the water prior to drinking. At the same time, the utility was dumping disinfectants into the water to inactivate the pathogens. For an unfortunate period of time, the public was left in the dark about the high amounts of disinfectants and DBPs in the water. This was another down fall of the current regulation and the actions performed by the utility.

    As an environmental engineer, it is in my code of ethics to always put the safety of the public first. It was careless and detrimental for the decision makers of Flint to allow the Flint River water to flow through the treatment process and distribution system without extensive research conducted to check safety standards. The gap in regulation can be observed through the inadequate report standards, dated safety limits, and excessive time lags. All of these components combined to contributed to the national water crisis. I gain more knowledge about drinking water treatment every day I work in the Drinking Water Research Laboratory at the University of Central Florida. The research is directly applicable to utilities and I personally feel like I am making a real difference for the lives of many. Environmental engineering is sometimes considered the most underappreciated and mysterious job. People joke saying that an invisible environmental engineer is the best kind of engineer. That means to say, if you work behind a curtain and deliver a good product that will keep the public healthy without raising suspicions, you are doing your job correctly. But this thought is in clear opposition to my opinion. Similar to how community policing is strengthening the often negatively portrayed police force, I want the public to understand how their water is impacting the earth by directly engaging with utilities. Each of us are responsible for the footprint we leave on this Earth. Community education in water treatment, distribution, and use should be on the front

    lines in a fight to shed light on the nation’s lead contamination concerns. This nation is run by the people and the people have an obligation to push smarter regulation and safety improvements to water systems. People must accept that our nation’s water distribution system is due for major upgrade and repair. Parts of the system hasn’t been changed since its original installation directly after World War II. Many people will see construction as a hindrance on their daily life. Others will complain that drinking water is a human right that the government is forced to supply despite their lack of desire to pay the taxes required to provide safe systems. It’s time to educate America and unite a nation ready to prevent crisis instead of simply reacting to it.