New state testing data released this week shows 7 percent of about 10,000 Flint homes tested since September were above the federal safety standard for lead — a measure considered by a leading water quality expert to be progress.
“These values are much, much better than what we measured last August,” Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards said Wednesday. “At a minimum, the system is healing.”
Edwards has played a key role in the detection of the city’s lead contamination problems and is assisting Michigan and Flint in efforts to address them.
Among the 10,227 homes tested since Sept. 3: 597 had lead levels between 15 and 100 parts per billion, 33 homes had levels between 101 and 149 parts per billion and the plumbing of 90 homes had lead levels ranging from 150 to 10,467 parts per billion, according to the state’s report.
Seventeen homes spread across five ZIP codes in the city had lead levels exceeding 1,000 parts per billion, according to test results posted Tuesday on the state’s Flint water crisis website.
Health officials have determined that no level of lead is safe. Federal standards for water treatment have set a 15 parts per billion action level, where alternate water sources should be used. Residential faucet filters are rated to handle up to 150 parts per billion.
Residents of the city’s 32,000 homes, meanwhile, are encouraged to continue using filters to prevent lead exposure and to test their water, officials say.
The results come as Gov. Rick Snyder and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver are at odds over how to go about replacing the water service lines on private property that are blamed for leaching lead into the city’s drinking water supply.
On Wednesday, Weaver announced Flint city workers will begin training next week on how to remove water service lines containing toxic lead, while Snyder urged caution against immediately breaking ground until a month-long infrastructure study can be completed.
“The ultimate goal needs to be replacing the lead service lines, and I believe (we have) common goals with the mayor to do that,” Snyder said Wednesday.
The study will include a test removal of 30 lead service lines, he added, as engineers try to identify active water lines and avoid mistakes other cities have made in large-scale pipe replacement projects.
But Weaver is pushing Snyder to seek an immediate infusion of $55 million in aid from the Legislature to pay for a full-scale project to have 32 four-person crews remove all 15,000 lead service lines across the city.
‘Working with urgency’
Flint residents don’t trust the existing pipes, Weaver said.
“In April, it will be two years that we’ve been dealing with this,” Weaver said in an interview with The News.
“We don’t need to wait any longer. We’ve got to move forward. For us to have to wait and wait and wait and continue living off of bottled water makes no sense.”
Snyder chalked up his differences with Weaver to the timing of eventually replacing lead service lines in the city.
“Her goal is to get pipes replaced. Well, that’s one of my goals,” Snyder said.
“That’s one of the steps of this larger process.”
Snyder addressed the disjointed messages coming from him and the mayor during a press conference Wednesday at the Flint offices of Rowe Professional Services, which will be conducting the state’s infrastructure study.
“People are all working with urgency ... and it’s always a challenge to stay in sync in all of these matters, so we want to work as closely as possible,” the governor said.
For his part, Edwards said the decision needs to be made about how best to use the resources Flint has available now.
“A decision has to be made about when and how to start replacing the pipes,” he said. “And it is not a legal decision; it is a moral and ethical decision that weighs prioritization and funding. And if people decide that they want the pipes out and the money is available to achieve that goal, I’m in favor of the plan that has been put forth by the people in Lansing and (Weaver) because they are going to do it right — control replacement, make sure people have filters to protect themselves from mobilization (of lead particles) …
“I personally would like to see Flint become a model for the rest of the country in showing how this can be done correctly.”
‘Filters are working’
In addition to the state’s numbers, EPA officials on Wednesday are also indicating positive results from recent sampling efforts. The federal agency said sampling showed “lead-removal filters are working as expected in Flint homes with high lead levels ...”
The EPA’s findings came after testers returned to homes that previously produced high levels of lead in drinking water. Water was sampled with and without filters approved by Ann Arbor-based NSF, which certifies products and processes for meeting public health standards.
“The latest results show that NSF-certified filters are effective at removing lead from the water,” an EPA statement read. Both the EPA and Edwards stressed the need for residents to continue using their filters.
Flint schools have also been a primary concern after tests conducted last fall also found dangerous lead levels in some buildings. Keith Creagh, director of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said Wednesday that all schools in Flint should have new plumbing installed by March 1.
Workers to be trained
Weaver, meanwhile, said the Lansing Board of Water & Light will begin training Flint workers on how to remove lead service lines next week at a vacant property in Flint owned by the Genesee County Land Bank. Lansing’s utility has removed 13,500 lead service lines since 2004.
After the training, the city will begin removing lead service lines to high-risk households, Weaver said. She indicated Flint needs state or federal assistance to fund her $55 million “fast start” program.
Creagh said state officials are running barriers to launching an immediate house-by-house removal program.
“We’re having difficulties finding lead service lines in Flint,” he said.
Since the lead was discovered last fall in Flint’s treated river water, the state helped the city switch back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water source.
During the period Flint was using Flint River water from April 2014 to October, no phosphate chemicals were added to treat the water for corrosion control inside the city’s aging pipe system.
Since the switch back to Detroit water, corrosion control chemicals have been added in an effort to recoat the inside of the pipes to guard against further corrosion.
Water experts, including Edwards, have recommended both recoating existing pipes and replacing others, Snyder said.
“I think I’ve been consistent in this message and hopefully it’s resonating: You coat the pipes, you do the infrastructure study and then you do the pipe replacement,” Snyder said.
“This is a process we just need to follow through on.”
Weaver’s push for an immediate removal of lead service lines comes six weeks after Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint, where residents have complained since the April 2014 switch about the foul smell and orange color of the city’s water.
The mayor issued a statement Wednesday threatening to “go on national TV” and get MSNBC liberal commentator Rachel Maddow to “issue a worldwide challenge” to get celebrities and philanthropic donors to donate to a crowdsourcing campaign to buy Flint residents new pipes.
Weaver also may ask Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for assistance in pressuring Snyder and the Legislature for full replacement of Flint’s lead service lines.
Clinton has been railing against Snyder for weeks on the campaign trail and pledged to help Flint residents during a Feb. 7 campaign stop at a Baptist church in Flint.
“If she’s willing to help us … then let’s start moving,” said Weaver, who has endorsed Clinton for president. “I’m not going to say no because it’s in the middle of an election or a campaign going on.”
Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed.