State calls Flint's lead line excavation tool 'unreasonable,' won't pay excess costs

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
A view of Saginaw Street in downtown Flint shows the continued progress in the rebuilding and preservation of buildings. 

(Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)2015

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office says the state won’t pay for excess costs associated with Flint lead service line replacements if city officials insist on using a costlier excavation system.

The city announced in June that it would switch from hydro-excavation because the excavation technique using high-pressured water was not a reliable way to identify lead service lines.

The state, in its letter, contended the process was both effective and efficient and said Flint’s “unreasonable” decision would cause the city to exceed an agreed-on $5,000 cap for each address.

“If that happens, the state parties will deny reimbursement for any excess costs,” the letter from Assistant Attorney General Richard Kuhl said. 

The disagreement is one of several between the state and Flint in recent months regarding the condition and replacement of the city’s infrastructure.

The city’s mayor, Karen Weaver, has questioned state reports on the condition of the city’s infrastructure and threatened legal action when Gov. Rick Snyder decided to stop free bottled water deliveries to the city. As recently as last week, the state expressed concern about delays in reimbursement requests for service line replacements in the city.

Flint officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The city’s water became contaminated with lead while Flint was under a state-appointed emergency manager. The contamination stemmed from an April 2014 decision to stop using pretreated water from the Detroit area system and instead use Flint River water while a regional water authority finished building a pipeline from Lake Huron to Genesee County.  

The city, following advice from state water regulators, failed to treat the river water with corrosion-control chemicals which led to the lead contamination first identified in August and September 2015. 

The city has committed to replacing an estimated 18,000 lead or galvanized steel service lines by 2020. As part of a settlement agreement, the state will pay $87 million to $97 million of the cost for the project, with a cap of $5,000 per address where a service line is replaced.

As of July, Flint had excavated roughly 8,500 lines, “virtually all those by hydro-excavations,” the state’s letter said.

But the city in late June told the state it would no longer use hydro-excavation because the city believed the tool missed lead splices between the curb and a home. Instead the city said it would dig 10-foot-long excavations to determine whether a service line had lead in it.  

The state countered that contractors already can identify the presence of lead splices between the home and curb through in-home inspections. And the city’s preferred technique, the state said, would result in a lengthy, expensive excavation that still wouldn’t be able to determine lead splices outside of the 10-foot excavation.

Hydro-excavation costs about $77 per residence, while Flint’s technique will cost $1,702 per residence, resulting in about $14.6 million more for the remaining 9,000 excavations, Kuhl wrote in his letter.

“Please be advised that the state parties consider such excavation costs to be unreasonable and they will deny any request for reimbursement that exceeds the $5,000 average cost cap under the settlement agreement due to these unnecessary costs,” the state wrote.

Moreover, if the city’s costs for service line replacements exceeds $97 million and it’s found Flint did not use “cost effective approaches,” attempts to get additional funding from the legislature will be more difficult, Kuhl wrote.

The attorney general’s letter comes about a week after the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wrote to the city, asking officials to start sending invoices for work done on the service lines.

According to the letter, Flint has used roughly 17 percent of the $167 million in state and federal funds available to the city for infrastructure upgrades and was behind in submitting reimbursement requests.

Flint’s chief finance officer Hughey Newsome said the delays in reimbursement requests were due to persistent staffing shortages thanks to state-appointed emergency managers.

Newsome refused help from the state to process the requests as the burden of training state employees would prevent the city from reaching the state’s Aug. 10 deadline to submit all reimbursement requests.

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