Snyder: Flint may get connected to Detroit water system

Jim Lynch, and Chad Livengood
The Detroit News

Flint — Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration is considering hooking Flint back up to Detroit’s water system temporarily in an effort to get a handle here on troublesome water quality and lead issues.

Officials have identified $1 million in state funding that will be used to buy water filters for residents. The state will also work to expedite construction of a new water line to Lake Huron so a planned water authority that would service Flint could get up and running as soon as possible.

The Snyder administration’s steps are part of the state’s response to rising fears of lead contamination in the water reaching Flint homes, particularly in its low-income neighborhoods. For a year and a half, the city has drawn its drinking water from the Flint River – an arrangement that has led to major problems for residents.

Snyder’s decision on temporarily reconnecting Flint to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system, its former source of water, is expected within a week.

A Detroit water official said the department is “excited about the possibility” of resupplying water to Flint.

“I think at this point it makes sense we speak directly to the city of Flint,” said William Wolfson, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s general counsel as well as chief administrative and compliance officer. “We want to provide services to any community.”

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Only Flint officials would know how long or how difficult it would be to hook back into the Detroit system, but Detroit would not charge a special fee for reconnection, Wolfson said.

In January, Flint officials said a Detroit offer to reconnect to its water system would cost Flint an additional $12 million a year or more.

For some residents, reuniting with the Detroit system can’t happen soon enough.

“I feel like I can’t even breathe anymore with how bad it’s gotten...,” said Carrie Younger-Nelson, a 60-plus-year resident of Flint. “We need to go back (to DWSD).”

State officials appeared at Flint’s Kettering University Friday to announce multiple steps meant to improve water safety and reduce fear after reports that city children are showing higher amounts of lead in their blood. The moves include:

■Immediately testing drinking water at each of the city’s traditional public, charter and private schools.

■Expanding exposure testing in individual homes, free of charge and using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency laboratories to process the samples quickly.

■Making free water testing available to residents.

■Increasing corrosion controls at Flint’s water treatment plant.

■Strengthening the existing Flint area safe drinking water committee by adding Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan’s’ chief medical executive.

Researchers from Virginia Tech and Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint said last week that lead levels in local children have risen since the city, under Snyder’s appointed emergency manager, started getting its water from the Flint River instead of the Detroit system in April 2014. Studies showed that in some areas lead levels doubled and, in two local ZIP codes, the levels tripled.

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Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At very high levels, it also can lead to seizures, coma and even death.

A crowd of roughly 30 protesters gathered at Kettering to show their frustration over the city and state’s handling of Flint’s water problems. Some of the signs read “Not Your Labrats,” “Our Health Matters” and “No More Filters – Back to Detroit Water.”

Mona Haydar was among those demonstrating.

“There’s just this feeling of being duped,” Haydar said. “They’ve been telling us it’s safe to drink , and now we hear that it’s not. It’s not fair.”

Sebastian Robins brought his 19-month-old son to the protest.

“We’ve just been getting more and more concerned as more information has come out,” he said. Robins said he would welcome a return to the Detroit system, even with a monthly price tag of up to $2 million per month for the city.

Through December 2014, Flint’s water was testing at 6 parts per billion for lead, Snyder said. But during summer testing it rose to 11 parts per billion, much closer to the federal limit of 15 parts, he said.

“I think it’s prudent given the increase that we take action,” Snyder said. “I think it’s very prudent that we take these action measures going forward.”

The plan’s release came as the Genesee County Health Department said 4,000 water filters, purchased by local agencies, would be handed out Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the University of Michigan – Flint’s Recreation Center at 401 Mill St. The priority is to give the filters to low-income Flint families with children younger than 5.

But U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said he wants “all parties to adopt a greater sense of urgency than I’ve seen demonstrated thus far” and ensure every Flint resident in need gets a lead-clearing filter.

Kildee worries that corrosion control hasn’t been started yet in the Flint water system.

“Experts acknowledge that corrosion control treatment takes time once introduced – weeks or even months – to move throughout the water distribution system and fully take effect,” he said in a statement. “Thus, delaying corrosion control treatment will only delay improving the water quality.”

Local officials have long complained of high rates the Detroit water system charged its customers and wanted instead to tie in to the planned Karegondi Water Authority, which is expected to begin drawing water from Lake Huron some time next year.

At the heart of the problem are the lead plumbing connections that tie much of Flint’s old housing stock to city water lines. Water that tests clean at withdrawal and after treatment can take on lead once it reaches the lead connections at the home.

State officials repeatedly emphasized Friday the testing has shown the water meets safe levels when sampled at stops before it reaches the home.

“We’re going to commit to working with the city to accelerate the long-term replacement of lead service lines,” DEQ’s Wyant said. The state will also work to ensure permits and work tied to the Karegondi Water Authority project are not held up unnecessarily. he said.

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Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.