Flint, MI— Flint Community Schools’ Superintendent Kevelin Jones filled a cup of water from a fountain, raised it to his lips, and took a sip. The small crowd of students and community members cheered: it was the first time someone had safely drank from a Flint school water fountain in years.
On Feb. 8, the district unveiled new, state-of-the-art hydration stations during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Southwestern Classical Academy. The project has been four years in the making.
“Our scholars have not been able to drink out of our water fountains. And at this point, we have clean water coming out of our water fountains,” Jones said.
In 2018, tech billionaire Elon Musk donated $480,000 to the district for water filtration stations in the wake of the Flint Water Crisis. That has led to the installation of 130 water stations between the district’s 11 schools and the administration building. The systems remove bacteria as well as lead and other metals that release into the water as it moves through the buildings’ plumbing.
Jones said he spoke to representatives from the Musk Foundation, but they could not attend the ceremony.
“They could not be here today, but they wanted to make sure that they got pictures and really be able to hear about this awesome day,” Jones said.
Laura Sullivan, a mechanical engineering professor at Kettering University, has served as co-principal investigator on the filter installation project. She and her team of researchers have been working on a volunteer basis to perfect the filters.
“I can’t even put words to it,” Sullivan said through tears. “So many times, we stumbled, and we got obstacles. It’s a dream. I mean, that sounds dorky and bizarre, but for me, it’s been a dream to see this happen.”
Together, Jones, Board of Education President Danielle Green, 14-year-old student Rachya Spottsville, Principal Chris Ochodnicky, and Board Secretary Adrian Walker cut the ribbon and took the first sips.
“It feels good to have fresh water. It’s nice to see everybody happy about drinking fresh water now,” Spottsville said.
Arch Environmental Group, a third-party consultant to the district, has been field-testing the filters and taking water samples for months. Tests show that lead levels remain high prior to entering the filters, averaging between three parts per billion and 219 ppb, depending on the school. After filtration, lead and other bacteria are removed and undetectable.
According to district documents obtained by Flint Beat, the highest single reading was Scott Elementary School, with one test showing lead levels of 620 ppb. While there is no “safe” amount of lead, The Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended actionable level is 15 ppb.
“I was part of testing where we actually brought water in with a known amount of bacteria and found nothing coming through,” Sullivan said. “I’m very comfortable with drinking that water. That’s a big thing. It’s absolutely, truly the best.”
Sullivan said that the stations are water fountains connected to a series of complex filters. Three filtration methods remove potential contaminants from water by targeting particles of varied sizes and shapes.
Water that flows into the drinking fountain first passes through an activated carbon filter, which removes metals such as lead and copper and other particles that could affect the taste, like chlorine. It then goes through an “ultrafilter,” which removes most bacteria. Finally, ultraviolet light kills off any remaining bacteria or viruses.
“(This technology) does exist, but not in drinking fountains,” Sullivan said. “It’s not found anywhere else.”
Due to the water crisis, Jones said he expects some hesitancy surrounding the water stations. Alternative sources of water, like bottles and jugs, will be available to students for the rest of the year, Jones said.
Fourteen-year-old Shyla Gunter was nervous about drinking the water at first but said she was convinced after watching others drink it.
“I just wanted to wait and see if it was good or not. I don’t drink any water until somebody else does it. I just didn’t want to get sick,” Gunter said, adding that she plans to refill her water bottle once it’s empty.
The systems are not installed at water sources like bathroom faucets or sinks. Jones said while it’s safe for students to wash their hands in school faucets, they cannot drink the water. Signage will be posted in the bathrooms.
Sullivan said she is working with school officials to develop a general plan for flushing the water systems to prevent fewer contaminants from non-filtered water.
“Now that we can say to anybody that can drink out those water fountains, ‘there’s no lead, there’s no bacteria,’ now we want to say, ‘How much risk is there to make coffee from water in the bathroom?’ Should they never do it? Should they flush first?” Sullivan said.
For now, the bubblers on the water fountains will be shut off due to the pandemic. But students will still be able to fill up their water bottles.
“This is the first opportunity we have for our scholars. I’m thinking about those elementary babies as well, that are used to going up to a water fountain. They’ve been told ‘no’ for the last four or five years. And now we can tell them ‘yes,'” Jones said.