UM-Flint research shows Flint likely has 8K lead lines

Jacob Carah
Special to The Detroit News

Flint — Researchers with the University of Michigan-Flint announced Monday that the city likely has 8,000 lead service lines, nearly half of initial projections of 15,000.

UM-Flint Professor Marty Kaufman and his team of researchers and UM-Flint students have identified “4,376 known lead service pipes” in the city.

Kaufman said the data is based on analysis of hand-written records of some 45,000 index cards, a 1984 city survey and further collaboration and research from the Geographic Information Systems Center at the university. Kaufman said the GIS estimates an additional 4,000-plus service lines in the city that contain lead, “bringing the total estimate to more than 8,000 lead service lines.”

Interest in removing lead service lines comes as the city is under a state of emergency because of corrosive water caused lead to leech from the aging water system.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said her answer is simple when asked why removing all the lead service lines is necessary.

“The people of Flint have suffered enough. This is a public health emergency and an economic crisis,” Weaver said. “People will not buy homes or even feel comfortable in our restaurants until every lead service line is removed.”

Weaver characterized the mapping data as an important step in restoring confidence in government.

“I will not rest until every service line is removed, and the people of Flint deserve no less,” Weaver said.

Kaufman, professor and chair of the Earth and Resource Science Department at UM-Flint, said the GIS Center’s mapping project team began work on Jan. 18, identifying lead service lines throughout the city’s “56,000 parcels, homes and businesses.”

Kaufman said the volume of lead service lines is because of the magnitude of older homes in the city in which “the average age of homes is 74 years old” with “more than 23,000 homes built before 1950.” He said the research team’s primarily challenge was sifting through the city’s older residential line service records.

“Previously, the information was only available on handwritten notes, paper maps and scanned images, all of were compiled by work done by the city up until 1984,” he said.

Kaufman stressed the survey data did not always indicate the types of pipes used.

“There are approximately 13,000 parcels in which the type of pipe was not identified; of those, roughly 11,000 are residential properties,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman’s group — working along with Rowe Professional Services, a Flint-based engineering firm, Lansing Board of Water & Light, state and federal response agencies — will “continue to analyze the data we now have, along with additional water and blood lead levels to create a risk assessment model for all city property parcels with an initial focus on missing data.”

Weaver announced a $55 million effort earlier this month to replace residential lead pipes in the city to combat its water contamination crisis. Monday’s announcement “is part of the data Flint officials will use to help prioritize where to begin replacing pipes in Flint as work begins on Mayor Weaver’s fast-start initiative,” her office said in a statement.

Under program, the Lansing Board of Water & Light will provide Flint officials with technical advice on how to unearth and replace the city’s sprawling 550-mile-long network of iron pipes containing toxic lead metal that has tainted Flint’s water supply.

“As we look at all of the information moving forward, it will help to determine whose first, whose second and whose third and so forth,” Weaver said.

Standing next to two diagrams of the city with areas containing lead service lines highlighted in red, Kaufman added on Monday the No. 1 indicator “that a property would have lead was the age of the structure on the property.”

According to Weaver’s office, areas with high concentrations of lead pipes will be given priority, especially those “ whose residents include young children, children with elevated blood lead level, pregnant women, senior citizens, people with compromised immune systems, and households where water tests indicate his levels of lead at the tap and residential day care facilities.”

Gov. Rick Snyder last week announced another $2 million to target line removal — money that could be put to use within the next 30 days.

Responding to current funds made available by the state, Weaver said Monday: “I’m looking for some more money. We do have $2 million to get started, but we are looking to move forward now.”