Flint’s pipe swap plan slowed amid Weaver-Snyder rift

Jonathan Oosting, and Chad Livengood

The first round of Flint Mayor Karen Weaver’s “fast start” pipe replacement program is moving slower than expected as she continues to push for more state and federal funding amid her city’s water contamination crisis.

Weaver hoped crews would be able to replace lead-tainted underground pipes at 30 Flint homes by the end of March. But as the month comes to a close, she said Thursday that 14 pipes had been replaced.

The delay and Weaver’s continued calls for more state aid were announced amid a growing rift between the Democratic first-year mayor and the Republican Snyder administration. Gov. Rick Snyder called his relationship with Weaver’s administration “a challenging situation” during a Thursday interview with The Detroit News before speaking at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Inclement weather delayed additional work at three Flint homes on Thursday. Crews were expected to replace service lines at five homes on Friday and 10 others over the next week, the mayor’s office said.

“While we couldn’t move as quickly as we first hoped, now we will be able to train more crews and replace pipes at many more homes more quickly, as long as we get the necessary state and federal funds,” she said in a statement.

“Nearly all Flint residents are still having to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth, and many still fear their children are being exposed to lead. They deserve to have all the lead-tainted pipes replaced as soon as possible.”

Snyder said Thursday the state remains committed to helping Flint remove lead pipes damaged by corrosive Flint River water that flowed through the system between April 2014 and October 2015. He has asked the Legislature for an additional $25 million in supplemental funding for Flint infrastructure projects, but leaders have not yet acted on the request.

“I said we’re going to get rid of lead pipes. I’ve said it multiple times,” Snyder said after speaking at a journalism conference in New York.

But the Republican governor’s recently unveiled a 75-point plan for fixing Flint’s water contamination crisis stopped short of committing to replacement of all lead water service lines in Flint that run from streets and into people’s homes.

“I’m not going to get rid of them; the city is the party that is responsible for replacing lead pipes,” Snyder said. “We want to be a partner and figure out how to get them replaced. It’s a question of time frame and resources.”

The Snyder administration has urged caution against rushing to replace all lead pipes when Flint’s archaic records have made it difficult to identify which homes have lead pipes.

Weaver’s complaints about the slow pace of lead pipe replacement come as tensions between her office and the Snyder administration are simmering.

“It’s still evolving,” Snyder told The News about the relationship. “ ... We want to be a supportive partner. The city government needs to be taking the lead on a lot of these issues because, again, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. So you’ve got a challenging situation.”

Snyder said lead pipe replacement and hiring contractors “are all normal city functions.” In mid-January, he successfully lobbied a state board monitoring Flint’s finances to return executive power that was reserved for the city administrator under former emergency manager Jerry Ambrose.

“When you’re in a situation like this and you’ve got people in a crisis situation, it takes some work and you’ve got to keep working at it,” Snyder said. “… I’m just going to remain positive.”

Retired National Guard Brigadier General Michael C.H. McDaniel, whom the Democratic mayor appointed to coordinate the Fast Start program, described several factors that have slowed initial efforts.

The city has started working with the University of Michigan and Wayne State University to take water samples from each site two days before pipe replacement and two to four days after, he said. McDaniel also cited inclement weather and additional effort required to replace galvanized iron pipes damaged by the harsh Flint River water the city used between April 2014 and October 2015.

“We are trying to balance urgency with precision,” McDaniel said in a statement. “We made a number of assumptions as we undertook the Fast Start initiative, knowing we didn’t have all the data we would like to have, but also knowing we had to start getting the lead out of Flint. We’ve vastly improved and speeded up the pipe removal process in just the past few weeks as we’ve gotten new information.”

The first phase of the “fast start” program is being facilitated by a $500,000 contract between the state and Rowe Professional Services of Flint. Weaver estimates another $55 million will be needed for the next phase of the year-long program. Flint plans to use $2 million in state funding given to the city as reimbursement for Detroit water reconnection costs.

Snyder has also created a 21st Century Infrastructure Commission to study long-term needs across the state. He announced appointments to the 27-member committee Thursday.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said last week he does not want to approve any more current-year spending bills until the Legislature finishes work on next year’s fiscal budget, likely in early June.

Cotter told reporters he would be willing to consider a supplemental funding bill in tandem with budget approval, but he said the federal government also bears some responsibility for the Flint crisis and should pay for part of the pipe replacement.

“I don’t know what that looks like just yet. But as far as the thought that the state would come in and replace those lead service lines at 100 percent of the cost, I would not support,” Cotter said.

At the federal level, Michigan’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters continue to urge a vote on their Flint-inspired legislation that includes $100 million in subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements.

Snyder’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force released a report last week that pointed to failings by the city and federal government but concluded the “causes of the crisis lie primarily at the feet of the state by virtue of its agencies’ failures and its appointed emergency managers’ misjudgments.”