What's next for Flint...

... and why it might be what’s next for any older American city.

If there’s any good news coming out of Flint, Michigan, it’s that the municipal water has improved so much in recent months that it’s finally safe for hand washing, showering and bathing. Drinking? No, at least not unless there’s a filter on the faucet.

Two years ago, state officials made the decision to switch the city’s water supply from water direct from Detroit’s treatment facility to the Flint River that cuts through the downtown, exposing thousands of people to toxic lead levels when the city’s old service lines corroded. Now those lead levels are finally declining, seven months after the city reconnected to the Detroit water system and began treating the water with phosphates, which coat the old piping with a protective film.

But lead can still detach at random and most residents, particularly Mayor Karen Weaver, believe the only way to fix the situation for good is to remove and replace every lead service line in the city.

“If we don’t take this opportunity to do the right thing, then we’ve failed a second time,” the mayor told the Detroit Free Press recently.
To date, however, the mayor’s “Fast Start” pipe replacement program has replaced only 33 lead service lines out of an estimated 8,000 across the city of 425,000 people.

By far the biggest obstacle is cash to pay for the project. Recall that the main reason for the switch to river water was to help the bankrupt city save money. Now even with the crisis making international headlines, the town has received just $2 million in reimbursement funds from the state. This for an estimated cost to replace the town’s service lines pegged initially at $55 million. A couple of hundred million in federal funds, however, is slowly bound to head to Flint, too.

The town is going to need every penny of it since a new report from a Flint engineering firm puts the average cost for replacing each service line at $7,500. That’s almost double the average cost of $4,000 estimated by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality last fall.

And the real cost could be even higher. Left out of the figures were permit fees of $2,400 per site, according to the 115-page report done by Rowe Professional Services on behalf of the state’s government.

The increased cost of re-piping could further complicate ongoing discussions in the state’s capitol over how much the state should deliver to help Flint as state lawmakers face a $460 million budget hole for the Wolverine state overall.

Originally, the governor’s budget called for nearly $200 million for Flint. But in talks over a budget deal, even the Flint package that has made some headway could be at risk for cuts.

Meanwhile, the Rowe report not only upped the estimated cost, but also added to the number of service lines to be replaced.
According to the report, records show that about 10,200 lines have been identified as either lead or galvanized steel — also considered risky for leaching lead — and likely need to be replaced.

The pilot project ran into other challenges, too.

“There were times when the contractor had to wait for the inspector to get to the site and approve the pipe work prior to backfilling,” the report said. “Although only a minor concern with the pilot program, it will be critical for a large-scale replacement program that there is sufficient inspection staff to avoid contractor delays.”

Other issues included how to handle home fixtures damaged in the process and properly treat lead-contaminated soil unearthed during the pipe replacement.

Moving forward, the Rowe report raised several questions about how to approach the problem: Should the government pay for all pipe removal, including the portion from the sidewalk which is traditionally a homeowner's responsibility? Should the replacement project include all galvanized piping in addition to lead ones?

In the report, Rowe made several recommendations. They included investigating first to confirm the composition of the piping in the home before starting work. And the work should happen in neighborhood by neighborhood rather than home by home to reduce disruption for residents.

“Depending on the funding allocated for service replacement, multiple contracts should be awarded so that the work can be completed quickly,” the report said. “However, the number of contracts and potential work crews must be balanced against the city’s ability to provide permitting and inspection.”

While much of the situation in Flint remains doubtful, two things are certain: Flint has shined a harsh spotlight on our country’s aging infrastructure and the federal government’s outdated lead testing of municipal water supplies. One, buried underground at least from our readers’ perspective, and the other, buried under bureaucratic paperwork, are bound to be addressed in the month and years ahead. 

Aging infrastructure

Certainly, one of the most audacious plans to pay not only for the Flint re-piping, but well beyond it, was proposed in June by Rep. John Conyers, who represents Michigan’s 13th congressional district (essentially Detroit). Conyers wants to create a multibillion-dollar fund to repair water infrastructure around the country by making American companies pay U.S. taxes on profits made overseas.

But Conyers’ proposal is one of several coming in the wake of the Flint water crisis that have yet to clear Congress. 

No one denies that the nation’s infrastructure is suffering from what President Barack Obama called “a culture of neglect.” With water infrastructure, officials now face the questions of how to fix the problems and how to pay for it.

The necessary water infrastructure investment needed in the U.S. over the next 10 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, is $105 billion. And, to replace the lead service lines would cost between $30 billion and $40 billion.

That, by the way, is the low bid.

The installation of lead water pipe wasn’t banned until 1986. That leaves as much as an estimated 6 million miles of lead pipe running underneath the U.S.

The EPA estimates it would cost $276 billion and take 20 years to replace all that lead pipe.

Of course, the costs of doing nothing aren’t insignificant either. Children, affected by lead poisoning, can’t feel their IQ ebbing away, but that is just one of the symptoms. Children exposed to even small amounts of lead can develop conditions associated with learning disabilities and behavior disorders. The costs for caring for these exposed children add up. As of 2002, researchers from the World Health Organization found that the most severe lead exposures cost the U.S. $43 billion annually.

Since Flint, many other American cities have made the news over lead in their water supplies. A Google search the morning I wrote this piece reveals: “Lead levels 23 times higher than federal limit found in Chicago school for disabled,” “Pittsburgh public schools to test for lead in water fountains,” “Denver steps up lead pipe removal,” and “Portland unnerved by discovery of high lead levels in school drinking water.” The list goes on, and new cities are added each day I check.

Of course, the good news in much of this is once we figure out how to pay for it, a lot of people could be put to work in good-paying jobs.

Harold Harrington, business manager of UA Local 370, Flint’s plumbers union, says he has hundreds of plumbers at the ready. He also says the union could expand a paid, five-year apprenticeship program to create more plumbers.

“If residents become apprentices,” he told the Detroit Free Press, “they can have a lasting career. We’d love to train them in the trade. We don’t want to just hand them a shovel and say, ‘There.’”

Nationally, a report released last May from the Brookings Institute, says there are 3 million jobs related to infrastructure opening up across the country over the next decade. The institute didn’t examine “infrastructure” per se, but rather pointed out what many of us have heard before — that most of the jobs will be created by a retiring workforce aging just as much as the infrastructure.

“Infrastructure occupations also boast competitive wages with relatively low barriers to entry, frequently paying up to 30 percent more to workers with a high school diploma or less compared to those in all other occupations,” the report explains. “Plumbers, truck mechanics and power line installers are among the numerous infrastructure occupations that fall into this category, which tend to emphasize on-the-job training rather than higher levels of formal education.”

As the report concludes, with the exception of engineering jobs where having a specialized college degree is essential, most successful infrastructure work “hinges on apprenticeships, internships and on-the-job training.”

Lead and Copper Rule

My hunch is we’ve all ingested more lead in drinking water than we might want to think about before Flint made us do exactly that. Here’s why: The Lead and Copper Rule, aimed at protecting people from lead in drinking water, offers plenty of leeway in how to test that lends itself to more than a little chicanery.

The rule was made law in 1991 and hasn’t been updated since. However, there is widespread agreement that major changes are well overdue for what governs about 68,000 public water systems and affects the health of millions of Americans.

Federal requirements for testing water for lead are, to say the least, a little unusual. Since lead is typically picked up after it leaves a treatment plant and passes through lead service lines and out possibly older faucets that contain more lead components than currently allowed, tests must take place at the tap inside someone’s home. And you can’t just make people open their doors to such testing. So utilities rely on volunteers.

But the way residents are instructed to sample their water, as well as which households are chosen for testing, can profoundly impact how much lead is detected.

Testing methods, for example, that can avoid detecting lead include asking testers to run or “pre-flush” faucets before the test period; to remove aerators; and to slowly fill sample bottles. The EPA reiterated in February that these lead-reducing methods go against its guidelines.

The test samples are also supposed to include the most “high risk” homes in a community. But even in bigger cities, the total number of homes sampled would not exceed 100.

The Guardian, a newspaper published in the United Kingdom, recently investigated our country’s lead testing and outlined how at least 33 cities either — and you take your pick of words — “gamed” or “cheated” the system in ways that potentially concealed large amounts of lead in drinking water.

“Of these cities, 21 used the same water testing methods that prompted criminal charges against three government employees in Flint over their roles in one of the worst public health disasters in U.S. history,” the newspaper reported.

Some highlights from the investigation:

Despite warnings of regulators and experts, water departments in at least 33 cities used testing methods over the past decade that could underestimate lead found in drinking water.

Officials in Philadelphia and Chicago asked employees to test water safety in their own homes.

Michigan and New Hampshire advised water departments to give themselves extra time to complete tests so that if lead contamination exceeded federal limits, officials could re-sample and remove results with high lead levels.

Some cities denied knowledge of the locations of lead pipes, failed to sample the required number of homes with lead plumbing or refused to release lead pipe maps, claiming it was a security risk.

Critics say the biggest problem with the Lead and Copper Rule is its vagueness.

Michigan environmental officials claim the wording of the rule allowed them to take water from the Flint River, run it through the city’s treatment plant for 18 months without adding corrosion controls and send it through the distribution system to home taps — actions that contaminated Flint’s water supply with elevated levels of lead.

State officials contend the rule called for two six-month periods of water sampling before orthophosphates to coat the piping were required. EPA officials essentially admitted to the lack of clarity when they issued a memorandum last November.

Meanwhile, work on reforming the rule continues. In December, the EPA’s outside advisory council recommended that it set a “household action level” for lead in drinking water and require systems to alert public health officials whenever they exceed that. The group also urged the EPA to prioritize “to the greatest degree possible” the removal of the lead service lines that remain underground across the country.

But the officials also say that they do not expect to conclude their overhaul until sometime in 2017, in part because of the complexities of the regulations and the diversity of opinions about what shape they should take.

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