Flint’s ‘Fast Start’ program results in small dribble of lead pipeline replacements
Flint — Seven months into a citywide emergency, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver delivers her State of the City address Thursday night with minuscule progress to report on the removal of lead pipes blamed for her city’s drinking water catastrophe.
Flint has overseen the replacement to date of 33 of more than 11,300 lead and galvanized steel residential water pipelines — or about 0.3 percent of all service lines — that engineers believe were damaged by the city’s April 2014 switch to corrosive Flint River water.
Michael McDaniel, a retired Michigan National Guard brigadier general running Weaver’s pipeline replacement program, acknowledges he is “frustrated” by the slow progress of marshaling resources and contractors to rip out old pipelines.
Weaver’s “Fast Start” pipe removal program has been slowed by a lack of accurate records about where lead service lines are buried underground and a complicated bidding process for replacing partial and full pipelines on a house-by-house basis, McDaniel said.
“We probably made it inordinately complex,” he said of the bidding process.
While the reintroduction of corrosion control chemicals last fall has caused lead levels to gradually subside, environmental experts have said the eradication of Flint’s lead-in-water contamination can’t be completed until the pipelines are replaced with copper piping.
But getting the lead out of Flint’s water supply has proved to be more complicated than officials thought.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who has been in Flint weekly assisting in the recovery, said the city has been faced with a “large task and maybe even an unprecedented task” to replace lead lines while the water remains unsafe to drink without a faucet filter.
“What Flint is trying to do now, the city of Lansing took 12 years to do,” Calley said. “There might be challenges with getting started, but there’s a determination that we need the information and the data to really hit the gas.”
‘Why is it taking so long’
But as the Weaver administration prepares a citywide pipeline removal blitz that officials promise will speed up this fall, residents say they won’t feel confident about the safety of their water until the lead pipes are gone.
“Why is it taking so long for the city of Flint to fix this problem?” asked Jamal Younger, whose Waldman Street house’s kitchen tap water recently tested for lead levels at 177 parts per billion, nearly 12 times the federal action level.
Younger said his family uses three cases of bottled water each day for drinking, cooking and bathing his two girls and one son. His wife is expecting another child in four months, which has him considering a move away from Flint.
Younger said Consumers Energy recently replaced all of the underground gas pipelines in his south Flint neighborhood within a month.
“If they can do it, then the water people can come and do the same thing,” said Younger, a unionized laborer. “It shouldn’t be no problem. I don’t know why they’re taking so long to decide who’s going to do what.”
Flint’s bidding process dragged on this spring and into June because the city developed a request for proposals that asked contractors to bid the price of replacing pipelines by sections.
The sections are from the house to the water control box between the sidewalk and curb, between the control box and the water main pipeline in the street and the full street-to-house cost, McDaniel said.
“It took longer than it should have to develop the RFP (request for proposal). There’s no doubt about that,” he said.
Water line records lacking
Adding to the complexity of the massive citywide project is that the city has no records about the type of metal for water pipelines running into 9,104 homes, McDaniel said.
Rowe Professional Services, a Flint-based engineering firm, said existing records show 3,414 known lead service lines and 7,889 pipelines made of galvanized steel, which can attract microscopic lead flakes to the inner wall of the pipe. Rowe estimated in a report prepared for state and city officials that at least half of the 9,104 unknown pipes are likely lead or galvanized steel.
“If (water service lines) are replaced at an average of 2,000 annually, eight years will be required to complete the replacement program,” according to Rowe’s April 27 report for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature have provided $25 million to remove 5,000 pipes at a cost of $5,000 per home.
“It’s a city responsibility to do the contracting for the pipe replacement. We provided the funds, so they have the funds available,” Snyder said in an interview Wednesday at an automotive conference in Acme.
Weaver originally requested $55 million from the state for pipeline replacement. Initially, the Legislature this winter freed up $2 million, which still hasn’t been spent. Snyder signed a bill in June containing the $25 million appropriation.
Flint resident Rudy Thomas, 58, doesn’t fault the city for the slow progress of removing and replacing pipes. He blames Snyder for not fully funding Weaver’s original “Fast Track” plan last winter.
“He didn’t give them enough money to do the whole city,” Thomas said. “He’s given them partial money at a time.”
Thomas recently had a lead test result of 321 parts per billion in the hot water heater in his mid-1960s home on Flint’s east side.
2nd pilot project looms
Flint and the Legislature’s $5,000-per-home cost estimate was developed based on the city of Lansing utility’s spending about $4,000 per home to replace lead services over the past decade, McDaniel said.
But Flint’s lowest competitive bid to replace a basement-to-street section of lead pipe and tear up a portion of the sidewalk, curb and street rang in at $6,400 per house, he said.
In mid-August, Flint is starting a second pilot project of 250 homes using a separate pool of $2 million in state funds that don’t have the $5,000 maximum cost requirement to try to reach an average of $5,000, McDaniel said.
To keep the costs down, the city is waiving nearly $2,500 in construction fees normally associated with tearing up a portion of the sidewalk, curb and street, he said.
“It’s our belief that almost all of these will be partial service line replacements,” said McDaniel.
But McDaniel puts a “huge asterisk” next to his prediction.
“We don’t know because the records are incomplete,” he said, pointing to a water-stained hardcover-bound book of paper records that are often outdated.
If street side of the pipeline is lead and the portion running into the house is galvanized, McDaniel said, “that’s worse than if the entire line is lead.”
Corroded galvanized metal is more susceptible to lead particles sticking to the inner wall of the pipe, he said.
The true cost of each home’s pipe replacement will only be learned when contractors start digging up yards.
“We’ve thought of lots of different ways to confirm the types of pipes,” McDaniel said, “and they’re either dollar intensive or labor intensive — and we don’t have either of them right now.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Melissa Burden contributed.
Flint mayor speech
What: Flint Mayor Karen Weaver delivers her first State of the City address
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: City Council chambers at Flint City Hall, 1101 Saginaw