Member Profile: John Sullivan, Chief Engineer, BWSC

John Sullivan BWSC

John Sullivan, BWSC

John Sullivan is a NEWEA Water Champion, and has been Chief Engineer for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission since 1989. In addition to being a NEWEA member, he is also on the Board of Directors of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) and a Commissioner for the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC).

When the water crisis in Flint, MI gained media attention throughout the US in January of 2016, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh called Mr. Sullivan concerned with the problem that his sister city was having and wanted to ensure that a similar situation couldn’t happen in Boston. (Don’t worry, due to MWRA standards it can’t!)

Mr. Sullivan went to Flint during the first week of February at the request of Mayor Walsh, as well as representing AMWA, to help address the public water supply problem. He brought with him reports and plans prepared for the City in order to assist in any way possible. Other national water organizations including the Water Research Foundation (WRF) and the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA) provided all of their reports/assistance available, at no charge, to help the City of Flint.

While in Flint, Mr. Sullivan met with many local officials including government, regulatory and water operations. There are approximately 600 miles of water pipe in Flint with an average of 350 water main breaks per year. This is well above the average of 250 water main breaks per 1000 miles of pipe per year. The City had no capital or asset management plan and Mr. Sullivan was able to give advice as to how Boston retains such a great public water system. Part of this includes the asset management plan in place: every pipe in the City is accounted for and has a schedule to be repaired and/or replaced.

Through his conversations with the officials in Flint Mr. Sullivan deduced the Flint water crisis was caused by a series of administrative and management failures including a local administrator trying to save money by not purchasing water from Detroit anymore and instead taking water untested from the Flint River and using a standby water treatment plant with inexperienced operators to treat it before distribution. Unfortunately, the treatment system was turned on before it was ready and the water system started seeing high amounts of e. coli. To combat the e. coli, the amount of chlorine was increased. The increased chlorine led to an increased amount if trihalomethanes, a disinfection byproduct. The new water supply also had no corrosion control because the water treatment plant was meant to be used temporarily on a standby basis. The water in turn essentially ate the lining off the pipe and led to leaching lead from the pipes.

A solution was already put into place when Mr. Sullivan was in Flint, which included adding orthophosphate to the water as a corrosion inhibitor. As of March 16, 91.6% of water samples taken had contaminants below the action level. Although the water quality to the City has been restored, gaining consumer confidence back will be the hardest part.

Mr. Sullivan is still helping the City from afar and in mid-March went to Washington, DC to meet with Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the US EPA, to discuss the Flint water crisis.

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