Flint mayor calls for immediate removal of lead pipes

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — Declaring she intends on getting “the lead out” of her city “immediately,” Mayor Karen Weaver on Tuesday pushed for the quick removal of lead pipes out of the highest risk homes in the city deeply distrustful of its water supply.

Flanked by mayors of major cities, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver speaks Tuesday about the city’s need to replace its lead pipes.

Weaver said that although she’s unable to say exactly what it will cost or how many lead pipes need to be addressed, the priority would be replacing lead pipes from the homes of pregnant women and with children younger than 6.

Flint isn’t considering relocating residents during this process and, at this point, officials don’t think they need to dig trenches.

“This must happen immediately. That’s what I’m asking for,” said Weaver, who was flanked by other mayors in Michigan as well as officials she enlisted in the effort. “I am morally obligated with every bit of the power and authority my office has to make Flint’s water safe and the city successful for the people who live and work here. And that’s what I intend to do.”

The mayor also convened a task force composed of a retired brigadier general and other advisers and experts and Flint citizens to chart a path to succeed in the effort to help restore trust from residents — many of whom say they will never drink again from its water supply until the lead pipes are replaced.

Weaver said her administration is eyeing private and public funding to pay for the lead pipe removal and that Gov. Rick Snyder has been notified of these efforts. Some residential areas have been identified through early door-to-door efforts but more work needs to be done to glean the locations of lead pipes.

“This is the city’s plan, and this is what we are going to do moving forward,” she said.

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Harvey Hollins, the governor’s director of urban initiatives who has been charged with leading the state’s efforts in the water crisis, said there’s a “process” for figuring out where the lead pipes are, and it’s going to take time.

“You just don’t go in and start digging up lead lines,” he said. “We don’t know where the lead lines are. We have plumbers in the city that are identifying the lead lines by going to the house and seeing where the water lines come in. And they are starting to mark these homes. The city can’t even tell you where the lead lines are. It’s one thing for the mayor to say we ought to replace these lead lines. The question is: Where are they? That’s the first step.”

Hollins said replacing the lead lines is "clearly something that the state has to do or assist the city in doing, however we decide to work that out."

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero offered assistance from his city, which he said has been successful in removing lead from 13,500 pipes at a cost of $42 million during the past 10 years — some of which was passed on to customers. Lansing has only 700 service lines left to be replaced later this year. Franklin credited Bernero with efforts to get rid of lead pipes in his city when he was a state senator.

Weaver said removing the lead pipes in Lansing is a “model for the nation” and that they have “perfected a method for replacing the lead service lines” that’s fast and half the cost.

“Can you imagine becoming mayor of Flint with all of the usual problems that an urban core city has and then add to it this lead crisis?” Bernero said of Weaver, who became mayor late last year after the city had been under control of the state through an emergency manager. “Flint is a city that meant so much to the state. I feel we all owe a debt of gratitude. It helped build this state. And this state owes something back to Flint. So if Flint is hurting, we are all hurting.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who has also been recruited to help and described herself as the “water and sewer mayor,” said she has a “great deal of empathy for the challenges” that lie ahead for Flint.

Retired Brig. Gen. Michael McDaniel was tapped to lead the effort given his experience in emergency management, critical infrastructure and homeland security issues, Weaver said, and will work with residents and others to develop a “new plan, the people’s plan, for Flint’s future.”

McDaniel said his role will be strategic and “looking forward as a city” to move the city out of the crisis.

Weaver’s request comes as the city grapples with the ongoing problem of lead contamination in its water.

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U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, announced earlier Tuesday that she is seeking $1 billion in emergency federal funding to replace Flint’s underground pipeline system. She introduced an emergency supplemental bill titled the Drinking Water Contamination Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2016. It would make the money available through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to “replace pipes, pipe fittings, and other drinking water infrastructure that are not lead free.”

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who was in town on Monday, said he was frustrated about the early inaccuracies of testing and evaluating lead pipes in the city.

“I think there is some questions to how accurate some testing was — to me that was outrageous. We should have accurate testing right from Day One,” he said in Flint at the Hurley Medical Center.

When asked when Flint residents will see the issue of lead pipes corrected, Peters could not confirm exact dates.

“The EPA has over 30 people on the ground and those tests need to be evaluated,” he said. “We’re going to continue to push the EPA and DEQ to work as fast as possible, but we want to make sure they do it thoroughly, too.”

Late last month, Snyder said the safest thing to do for the health of Flint residents would be to replace all lead service lines in the city, but he stopped short of committing to full replacement.

“That’s a question that you can ask across the country. That is not a short-term project, ripping up the infrastructure,” Snyder said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the cost of replacing all the lead service lines in Flint at $50 million to $80 million.

Snyder’s administration has been under fire for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s inaction in not requiring the city add corrosion control to Flint River water, which leached lead from aging service lines into the water supply. The state Health Department also failed to heed independent research pointing to elevated lead levels in children.

Experts, meanwhile, are working to identify the location of the lead pipes and other components of Flint’s water infrastructure by translating hundreds of hand-drawn plat maps and hand-written notes from the 1980s into digitized maps.

Flint residents complained for more than a year about the Flint River water smelled and caused rashes after the city started drawing its drinking water from the river in April 2014.

The city reconnected to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in October after high lead levels were detected in the water. Detroit uses Lake Huron as its source of water.

Lead can cause irreversible brain and developmental damage in children and infants who ingest it through water or lead-based paint.


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