Lansing replaces city’s final lead service line

Michael Gerstein
Special to The Detroit News
Lansing Board of Water and Light employees install a new copper service line after removing the last lead water service line in the city on Wednesday.

Lansing — A yellow crane pinched a thin cable attached to a lead pipe coiled in a small rectangular hole dug in a road large enough for two small refrigerators. And as the crane’s arm pulled, the last of Lansing’s more than 12,000 lead service lines was wrenched from the earth.

A 12-year campaign that began in 2004 ended Wednesday — the result of then state Sen. Virg Bernero, now the city’s mayor, after he grew alarmed at the thousands of lead service lines carrying city water to residents’ homes. Now with the final pipe gone and a $44.5 million project behind it, Lansing joins Madison, Wisconsin, as the only two cities in the nation to remove all lead service lines carrying municipal water to homes in their respective communities.

“It is a great day in Lansing,” Bernero said of the work done on the 600 block of Barnard. “What a tremendous Christmas gift, an early Christmas gift for the citizens of Lansing to know that their water is lead free.”

Lansing’s ambitious lead pipe removal project has been touted by city and state officials as a model for Flint as the crippled city continues to reel from the water crisis that the one-time automotive manufacturing hub has yet to emerge from. Officials continue to dole out bottled water and residents are advised to drink from the tap only through a lead filter because lead levels haven’t been ruled safe for human consumption.

With some 29,000 lead service lines now estimated in Flint, it could take several decades to remove them all unless workers can manage to replace pipes much faster than it took Lansing to replace its own 12,000 lead lines.

But Lansing’s new absence of lead pipes represents a shining possibility for Flint, where many residents have lost faith in public officials after state-appointed emergency managers made the cost-cutting decision to switch to the Flint River as the city’s water source in 2014. The corrosive river water scraped lead from city pipes after state officials failed to require federally mandated corrosion-control chemicals. The river water also is believed to be the likely link to a Legionnaires’ outbreak that killed 12 people and made 91 others sick during the 2014 and 2015 summers.

Flint is now hooked back up to Detroit’s water, which is drawn from Lake Huron, and its mayor, Karen Weaver, is pushing to rid the city of the lead service lines.

“Mayor Weaver’s goal is to have service lines replaced at 1,000 homes by the end of December, although the actual number may be fewer if bad weather occurs,” said Kristin Moore, a mayoral spokeswoman. “More homes will receive new pipes next year, with the number depending on the funding received.”

City crews are replacing lead lines in neighborhoods where “a significant number of young children or seniors live” as an initial priority, according to Moore.

Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature approved $25 million to pay for the pipe replacements up through September 2017 — enough money to pay for replacing service lines to about 5,000 homes, according to the mayor’s office.

Lansing is more than just a symbolic model for Flint. City officials from Lansing’s Board of Water and Light helped train Flint contractor teams in a cheaper and quicker pipe removal method after perfecting it over the past 12 years.

At first, it cost Lansing $9,000 for every lead pipe it removed and workers had to dig into residents’ basements, too. But thanks to a special tool city officials engineered, workers can now replace a pipe for about $3,600, and it takes about 4 hours “on a good day” instead of an all-day project, said BWL General Manager Dick Peffley, who joined the city utility in 1976.

Lansing officials trained Flint workers in that “trenchless” method and also hosted 20 other water utilities from across the country to show how they could do similar work.

According to BWL, Lansing’s water “meets or exceeds all measures of drinking water quality” under state and federal laws put forth by the Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The city’s water “has no detectable lead when it leaves its two water conditioning plants, and there are no lead mains in its 800 mile distribution system,” according to the city.

The city still uses corrosion control chemicals in the water, which goes to about 55,000 residential and commercial customers, according to the city.

City officials conduct lead testing at least every three years, BWL Water Operations Director Scott Hamelink said.

“Now we’ll do basic testing for the lead in people’s homes to see if our phosphate, our corrosion control, is working well,” Hamelink said.

Lifelong Lansing resident John Eschbach, 60, said he was never concerned about the lead pipes in the city. And he suggested that people ought to cut city officials some slack about the pipes.

“You’ve gotta understand that these old towns are gonna have that problem,” he said. “And you gotta look at it and say, well, ‘it’s not the city of Lansing’s fault.’ Because they’ve been around for so long. Nobody knew 60 years ago that lead pipes were a problem.”