Expert: Michigan pipe problems ‘ignored for decades’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan should be investing hundreds of millions more a year on underground infrastructure in order to ensure safe and reliable drinking water across the state, an industry expert told legislators Tuesday during a hearing on the Flint crisis.

“There are several other communities across the state that have similarly old systems. They’ve been ignored for decades and they’re falling apart,” said Mike Nystrom of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, a construction trade group that represents underground contractors.

“No one in those communities wants to be the next Flint. They’re scared of that.”

MITA began focusing on underground infrastructure needs last year before the true extent of the Flint water crisis was known. It commissioned Public Sector Consultants of Lansing to prepare a report based on U.S. Census Bureau and Environmental Protection Agency surveys of local government revenues, expenditures and needs.

The final report, released April 12, suggests Michigan is under-investing in drinking water infrastructure by between $284 million and $563 million each year, pointing to the need for additional investment to provide residents with clean water and meet various requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Communities spent an average of $447 million on drinking water infrastructure between 2004 and 2013, according to a Public Sector Consultants report commissioned by MITA, which pegs the annual need between $731 million and $1.01 billion.

“These numbers I put before you today have zero to do with Flint,” Nystrom told members of the Joint Select Committee on The Flint Water Public Health Emergency. “This crisis is going to increase those numbers short-term significantly, because we need to go in there.”

The committee, which has held six separate hearings on the Flint crisis, is not expected to meet again in the foreseeable future. Instead, panel members now will work to develop legislative responses to the Flint crisis, according to Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland, who said infrastructure funding levels will be part of that mix.

“We need to continue finding investment for infrastructure, both locally and at a state level, and I think overall the nation needs to look at it,” Stamas said.

Flint’s lead-in-water crisis was the result of a combination of aging infrastructure and human error. State regulators failed to require corrosion control additives for Flint River water the city used between April 2014 and October. The harsh water damaged aging pipes, leaching lead into the system.

The Senate last week approved a supplemental spending bill that includes $25 million in infrastructure specifically for Flint, a proposal that now is under consideration in the House, but the state has not committed to funding full replacement of all lead service lines in the city.

Gov. Rick Snyder has called for the creation of a new Michigan Infrastructure Fund to provide local governments across the state with resources to address high-risk underground lead and copper service lines. He’s requested an initial appropriation of $165 million, which the Legislature has not yet approved.

“That’s a start and a step in the right direction,” Nystrom said. “However, the reason we are falling behind, the reason we’ve had communities fall behind such as Flint, is because we stopped investing 20 years ago.”

Michigan voters in 2002 approved up to $1 billion in bonds for sewage treatment, storm water pollution prevention projects, but Nystrom said the state has not made any recent investments in the Michigan Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund, which has been supported by the federal government.

Snyder has also appointed a 21st Century Infrastructure Commission to study statewide needs and strategies. Nystrom is one of 27 members on that commission, which he said will delve further into the issue and present legislators with potential solutions by the fall.

The MITA estimates for underground investments do not address private wells or other private systems, which provide drinking water to roughly 1 in 4 Michigan residents.

“We’ve got a ticking time bomb out there,” said Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor.

In addition to Flint, Nystrom said summer beach closings are another reminder of the need for infrastructure investments in Michigan, including waste water treatment. The MITA report estimates the state needs to invest another $2.14 billion in stormwater and wastewater systems.

“We’re a state that prides ourselves on our water, the greatest asset we have, and yet during prime Pure Michigan time of the year, we have beach closings,” Nystrom said. “Those are a direct result of E. coli contamination that’s happening, fecal contamination from human waste that’s going into our greatest natural resource.”