Mich. lawmakers detail plans to replace lead pipes with $1B in US aid

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Hamtramck — Democratic lawmakers on Monday laid the path for more than $1 billion in federal aid to replace lead pipes in Michigan.

Replacement of the lines was expected to begin in June, said U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence at a news conference to announce the plans for infrastructure repairs across the state Monday at Hamtramck City Hall.

"(When) you don't fix something and you just try to ignore it, it will wake you up and make you understand how devastating it is not to invest in our infrastructure," said Lawrence. 

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence touts $1.3 billion dedicated to repairing Michigan's water infrastructure at a Nov. 22 press conference at Hamtramck City Hall.

Lawrence appeared with state Sen. Adam Hollier of Detroit and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash of Hamtramck to discuss the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law by President Joe Biden on Nov. 15. They also drummed up support for Build Back Better, Biden's comprehensive social spending bill that passed the House on Friday but faces an uphill battle in the 50-50 Senate. 

The bipartisan bill that Biden signed into law, which Lawrence described as a "historic investment" in roads, bridges and water infrastructure, includes roughly $10 billion in funding for Michigan, with $1.3 billion dedicated to replacing pipes. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive directive Monday for state departments and agencies to collaborate with the Legislature and begin preparing the state to implement lead replacement and other water projects when the federal money begins to arrive. 

“With this Executive Directive, we are accelerating the timeline to replace 100% of lead service lines in Michigan, prioritizing communities that have been disproportionately impacted, fostering enhanced collaboration across departments, and ensuring that the projects are built by Michigan workers and businesses," said Whitmer in a release. "I look forward to working with the Legislature to invest these dollars and get the job done.” 

State Rep. Abraham Aiyash touts $1.3 billion dedicated to repairing Michigan's water infrastructure at a Nov. 22 press conference at Hamtramck City Hall.

In October, Hamtramck became the latest city in Michigan to learn that its drinking water exceeded state lead limits in recent years, following Flint and Benton Harbor.

A federal judge in November approved a $626 million settlement for more than half of Flint's residents who were exposed to lead from the city's pipes.

"I am confident that we can meet our goal to replace 100% of lead service lines in Benton Harbor within 18 months and utilize the $1.3 billion headed our way from the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill specifically for water to protect safe drinking water in every community," said Whitmer in a statement in early November. 

Lawrence said skilled workers would be crucial in fixing the water systems in Michigan and across the country, and promised that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would support well-paying jobs for workers who represented their communities.

Lawrence called on labor unions, which she said could play a significant role, to ramp up apprenticeships for the jobs. She also called on communities to encourage high school students and young adults who may not be interested in college or not have a career path to consider taking apprenticeships.

"Working with your hands and learning a skill is transformational," she said, adding that some of those jobs could pay employees upward of $80,000 a year.  

They said the money needed to be quickly disbursed, unlike federal COVID-19 relief that the state has not yet spent.

"For the first time maybe this year, we're going to get some money from the federal government, (and) we're gonna get it out quickly," said Hollier.  

Aiyash cited an example of $570 million in unused relief for renters and landlords. "With the injection of money, we're hoping that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle will move swiftly to spend the money," he said. "We're heading into a very cold winter and our colleagues are sitting on this money and it's just collecting dust."

The Michigan Republican Party on Monday addressed Biden's Build Back Better agenda.

“It’s a shame that Democrats are touting Build Back Broke, which will raise taxes on working class Michiganders and provides tax cuts for the wealthy,” said Gustavo Portela, communications director for the Michigan GOP.

“Build Back Broke will put this economic downward spiral under Joe Biden and Gretchen Whitmer on steroids, further hurting working class Michiganders. We will continue to fight against this disastrous economic agenda tooth and nail because that’s the opposite of what Michiganders need right now.” 

Biden and other Democrats have vowed that individuals who earn less than $400,000 and couples who earn less than $450,000 would not pay more taxes to fund the plan, according to the Associated Press, and said it would be paid for by taxing wealthier Americans and corporations. 

Lawrence said the funding would come with stricter oversight over how and whether states use the money.  

"... They start playing political games with the appropriations of funds to the communities and to the constituency. And so we deliberately are working through that, so that the money must be released directly to the cities.

"And then it's going to be incumbent upon the council members, and the mayor and the city manager to come together to decide the projects that you need to invest in."