Flint begins lead pipe removal

Jacob Carah
Special to Detroit News

Flint — An initial effort to replace residential lead pipes in the city as part of a massive infrastructure project began Friday at a family home of a pregnant woman due this month.

(Caption Information) Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, with Lansing Mayor Virgil Bernero and Fast Start Director Michael McDaniel far left) announces the first digging/replacing water pipes to a home on the corner of Pierce & Greenfield streets in Flint, Michigan February 4, 2016. The company doing the digging is Fessler & Bowman. (John M. Galloway/Special to the News)

The house of Barry Richardson II and his fiancée, Ashley Haddock, was selected to be the first of likely more than 8,000 residences to have lead service lines removed as part of Mayor Karen Weaver’s “Fast-Start” program.

Richardson’s 8-year-old daughter also spends time at the home with the couple, who are expecting a baby this month.

“We’re really happy to know we can stop worrying so much about our children’s health being endangered by lead in the water,” Richardson, who along with Haddock works at a grocery store outside Flint, said in a statement.

Richardson, who said he had been considering selling the home he bought in 2011, plans to remain after the lead pipe replacement.

“This is a project that will help the entire city,” Weaver said. “It will help the whole city — everyone that lives in Flint, and even those who live outside of Flint that got Flint water. All deserve clean, quality water, so that is what we’re working on.”

Weaver’s “Fast-Start” initiative is a $55 million effort announced in February to replace all residential lead pipes. Weaver has called on Gov. Rick Snyder to encourage the Legislature to quickly approve $25 million for the first phase of the program. Friday’s work was part of the city’s commitment to replace 30 lines in 30 days. It will need more funding to go beyond that.

Weaver also responded Friday to pushback from Michigan House Republicans who are blocking further supplemental aid to Flint.

(Caption Information) A worker guides the digging of the first digging/replacing water pipes to a home on the corner of Pierce & Greenfield streets in Flint, Michigan February 4, 2016. The company doing the digging is Fessler & Bowman. The pipes being replaced are lead pipes from the main line (which is not lead) to the home. (John M. Galloway/Special to the News)

“I’m so glad we’re getting the attention that we’re getting because that’s going to help us keep the pressure on, and help for accountability to be there,” Weaver said. “I think the pushback is not deserved because we didn’t deserve what happened. We didn’t have a voice and that’s how this happened because our voice had been taken. So we’re going to push back.”

The Lansing Board of Water & Light is providing 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.

Lansing’s public utility also estimates that the 32 crews working regular full-time hours could replace Flint’s water service lines containing toxic lead metal within a year, city officials have said.

The program is expected to cost an average of $3,670 per household. Schools, businesses and other nonresidential locations aren’t targeted by the program.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated it would cost $50 million to $80 million to replace all the lead service lines in Flint.

Dan Husted, business manager with construction union Laborers Local 1075, was blunt Friday about the need for funding for the success of the pipe removal effort.

“It all depends on the money; we got contractors sitting ready to go,” he said.

Workers prepare to replace a lead water service line pipe at the site of the first Flint home with high lead levels to have its lead service line replaced under the Mayor Karen Weaver's Fast Start program on Friday.

Mindful of the effects of the water crisis on the city, Husted is hopeful the project can create positive change for people in Flint.

“Unfortunately as bad as it is, this is going to kick-start a career for a lot of people that live in Flint,” he said. “This isn’t to just fix the water lines and the work goes away. There’s going to be a lot of construction, and, hopefully, they can start a career, raise a family and stay in Flint.”

Husted said the contractor unions are working with Michigan Works! to get more people trained in the trade work necessary to get a job on pipe removal crews.

“We’re trying to get a lot people to our training school at no cost to them to do this, to be able to do the work,” he said. “We’re just waiting on the money.”

Flint’s water crisis began when the city switched to highly corrosive Flint River water in April 2014 from Detroit’s system as a money-saving measure.

Retired National Guard Brig. Gen. Michael McDaniel, who is involved in Flint, has said he is optimistic the Fast-Start plan can be completed within a one-year time frame. He said the timeframe to replace one lead service line is four hours.

“It took longer than that today,” McDaniel said. “First time this crew has done this, and we had some issues with digging up the sidewalk, but as we move through this, I think we’ll be able to do it in 3-4 hours.”

The official kickoff of lead service line removal comes a day after a contractor was stopped by authorities.

A crew arrived at 717 E. Alma on the city’s north side Thursday to begin removing a lead service line, but were halted after police alerted the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to the scene, witnesses said.

DEQ spokeswoman Melanie Brown said it was the city’s decision to stop the work.

Laura Sullivan, a mechanical engineering professor of at Kettering University, said Friday at the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee meeting that the city’s residents are growing concerned over whose needs are coming first.

“Everyone can see we are trying to help the city,” Sullivan said. “Everyone can understand we can only help one home at a time. The hysteria can get to where people think you are not helping me.

“It’s been a week for me of facing and trying to hold back that level of hysteria.”