State to cover Flint water bills in May for flushing

Jacob Carah
Special to The Detroit News

Flint — Residents will not be charged for their water usage in May as part of an aggressive effort to encourage them to move more water through the system as part of a city-wide flushing effort.

Federal, state and local officials announced Thursday an effort to help flush the system of loose lead particles. Residents are being encouraged to run cold water in the bathtubs and kitchens for five minutes every day for 14 days this month.

“May will be a free water month,” Gov. Rick Snyder said. “So, with respect to the water portion of the water and sewer bill, there won’t be a charge.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, flushing the pipes will help remove loose lead particles and to help recoat the pipes with anti-corrosion chemicals.

The water expense of the May bills will be covered by the state and residents will receive credit on their water bill.

Snyder joined Mayor Karen Weaver, Kathleen Falk, regional director of Region 5 for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Mark Durno, supervisory engineer at EPA, in making Thursday’s announcement.

“The flushing program is another necessary step to fixing the city’s broken water system,” Weaver said.

The state had previously sent $30 million to reimburse residents for use of lead-contaminated water that occurred after the city switched to corrosive Flint River water in April 2014 that leached lead into the water supply.

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said additional funding for Flint water use in May will come from the state Department of Environmental Quality.

“We are tapping into existing DEQ resources and will address any shortfall through the budget process — but the idea is to have it all coming from DEQ,” Adler said in an email.

Snyder noted “while we’re already providing 65 percent of the water bills as part of the water credit program, an additional 35 percent will be covered by the state, to more than accommodate the flushing part of the program,” he said.

Virginia Tech researchers noted last month the lead contamination levels in the city’s water have improved in the past six months.

But an estimated 55 percent to 80 percent reduction in water use by residents means fewer chemicals — orthophosphates and chlorine — are moving through pipelines and plumbing fixtures to combat lead contamination and bacteria growth.

Also last month, Flint worked with the EPA to install automatic “flushing” devices on fire hydrants throughout the city.

Durno said EPA testing has shown continued improvement in Flint’s water quality.

“We collected samples from several hundred homes, filtered and unfiltered, 100 percent of our samples results for filters have come back under the EPA’s action level,” he said. “Most were non-detect.”

Durno said the average level of lead coming through the filters is less than 1 part per billion, which is below the 15 ppb action level.

“As we’ve been messaging for months now, we have full faith and confidence in the use of the filters. The water coming through the filters is good to drink,” he said.

The EPA, in addition to monitoring for lead, is testing for a full makeup of what is in the water.

“All the water chemistry of water coming out of unfiltered taps with exception to lead and, in some cases, copper is normal,” Durno said. That included chlorine disinfectant byproducts.

Durno said “disinfection byproducts were off the roof and erratic last summer, but now they’re stable and everything is within regulatory limits.”

Pregnant women and children younger than 6 should still use bottled water, but the rest can use filtered water from their taps, officials say.

Snyder on Thursday said he was appreciative of President Barack Obama’s visit to the city last week, adding: “Today is an illustration of working with the city, in partnership with the state, and then working in partnership with the federal government.”

Also Thursday, officials unveiled a television, radio and digital media ad campaign to urge Flint residents to flush water in their homes.

The 30-second television spots and 60-second radio ads will start airing Friday on Flint stations. These ads tell the people of the city to “take a turn” to improve the city’s corroded pipes.

The $80,000 ad campaign was paid for by the state, said David Waymire, partner at the Martin Waymire group, the public relations firm heading up the campaign.

“If we ever get a nice day, this is the Vehicle City, we may ask people to go out and wash their cars,” he said.

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.