Activists want emergency water stations in Detroit, Flint

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Welfare rights advocates are urging the state to install emergency water stations and distribute sanitizing products in Detroit and Flint to aid vulnerable residents without running water amid the national coronavirus outbreak.

The People's Water Board Coalition on Friday said it's awaiting action from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in response to a letter asking the governor to pull together resources, including the National Guard, to set up water stations and provide bleach and other cleaning supplies. 

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

The group further warned it is "deeply concerned" that Detroit's water department will be unable to carry out a water restoration plan for homes in the city that have burst pipes, lead contamination and plumbing worries after been shut off over nonpayment for weeks to years. 

"We believe that local and state government are responsible for the public health of all residents and must do more to step up and protect us to stop the stem of the virus from expanding," Sylvia Orduño, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and member of the water coalition, said during a Friday teleconference with reporters. 

Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last week unveiled the interim policy to restore service to customers without water at a discounted rate. Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department said it had identified about 3,600 accounts that had been without water for more than a year.

Whitmer's office has not provided a formal response to the letter. Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Friday that the state will review it. 

The city gained national attention in 2014 when about 33,000 homes lost water access over unpaid bills. The crackdown on widespread delinquencies happened during Detroit's financial crisis.

The coalition wants the shutoff moratorium in Detroit extended indefinitely until more efforts are made to reach disconnected homes and restore and repair plumbing.

On Friday, the water department said the water restart plan launched last week in response to the virus is working.

"More than 1,000 households have had their water restored, are in the queue for a turn on over the next few days, or avoided a pending service interruption for nonpayment," the department said in a provided statement.

The water department noted the Detroit-based community outreach company Human Fliers knocked on the doors of 2,640 households known to have water turned off for nonpayment. The team verified 40 were vacant and 2,000 other didn't answer, weren't home or were unoccupied. The company will make a second attempt this weekend, DWSD said.

The water department said it has 10 crews assigned to the restorations and a plumbing contractor.

As of Friday, the number of presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Michigan rose to 549

Resident Nicole Hill said she's faced bills she can't afford, shutoffs, and struggles to purchase and carry home gallons of water to cook, clean and flush her toilet. 

"We need the state government to do it now before anyone else dies," said Hill, who also works with the welfare rights organization. "No one should ever have to suffer living without water due to being poor."

The water department said Friday that several houses visited have needed meters installed, plumbing repairs or other work to access turn-on valves. For those that need additional work, DWSD said, subsequent visits are scheduled within a couple of days.

DWSD said if activists or community members know of households without water that haven't received a response from the department, they should notify the department.

Michigan's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has been in communication with water activists and community groups and appreciates their recommendations as state officials work on timely solutions, Nick Assendelft, a spokesman for EGLE, said in an email. 

"We want to continue to take steps to ensure that Michiganders have the support they need during these challenging times," he said.