Flint residents criticize staying with KWA pipeline

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News
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Flint — The Karegnondi Water Authority was billed as Flint’s best chance to get quality water at a reasonable price in the coming decades.

Wednesday made clear, however, some Flint residents not only oppose the city’s pending move to the new water source, but some see the decision to join KWA as the first domino to fall in their long-running water crisis.

Roughly 40 people attended a KWA board meeting in Flint where emotions ran high and accusations flew against authority members. Interplay between officials and local residents became heated enough that board member and Flint City Councilman Eric Mays called police from his cellphone during the meeting.

By late June or early July, KWA’s pipeline from Lake Huron is expected to be completed. And within the following 12 months, both Genesee County and Flint expect to have their treatment plants operational and be getting their water from the new system.

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Flint joined the KWA in early 2013 while under the control of an emergency financial manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder. It was a move designed to save the city money on its water purchases by moving away from its long-time provider, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

A year later, after severing ties with DWSD and beginning to draw water from the Flint River, city residents began complaining of discoloration, foul odors and bad tastes. Spikes in the number of cases of Legionnaires’ disease followed — including a dozen deaths. And by fall 2015, evidence surfaced of lead contamination in the water and blood samples taken from Flint children.

Amidst rising health concerns in October, Flint switched back to its traditional provider, now called the Great Lakes Water Authority. Lead contamination has continued to be a problem, with residents still forced to use bottled and filtered water for drinking.

While those decisions may be viewed as apart from KWA, it was clear Wednesday that some Flint residents don’t see it that way.

“You have killed people,” Flint resident Getrude Saunders said. “You have taken life freely with no problems.”

Frustration among Flint residents over the city’s water situation — particularly perceived delays and potential costs associated with KWA — has many calling for the troubled city to remain with GLWA. GLWA also has offered to keep Flint on its system.

Of particular concern to many is a looming additional cost associated with getting Flint’s connection to the new KWA pipeline up, running and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Due to the lead contamination issues that cropped up in Flint starting in April 2014, federal regulators require the new KWA system to build three miles of test pipeline parallel to the KWA system.

That stretch would allow Flint to test its treatment capacity as well as its infrastructure before switching to KWA water full-time. But it comes with an additional cost that Flint officials and residents fear they will be stuck with — not the entire KWA.

The EPA-required test line has an estimated price tag of $3.9 million. It is unclear at this point who will pay that cost, but the prospect is enough for many residents to want to keep buying its water from GLWA.

“We wouldn’t even be in this predicament if it wasn’t for the switch…,” said Flint resident Lisa Williams, who came to the meeting with her grandson. “Now you’re trying to say that this three-mile pipeline wasn’t even in the plan for KWA to (pay for) it.

“How dare you?”

“You all look at your other options (instead) of going to KWA before you move forward with KWA…,” said Quincy Murphy. “If we can stick with Detroit and if those finances will fit out budget… Really, to tell you the truth, I really think this emergency manager was put in place for the City of Flint to make sure the KWA (went forward).”

“Let’s renegotiate,” said Flint resident Tony Palladeno. “Let’s stay with Detroit.”

Jeff Wright, the Genesee County Drain Commissioner and KWA’s chief executive officer, bore the brunt of most of the abuse Wednesday. But given the chance to respond late in the meeting, he addressed widespread information about KWA.

“Somehow KWA, and or I, was responsible for the decision to go to the Flint River?” he asked. “The push to go to the Flint River came from community leaders in Flint, elected officials and officials that were running for office, and came to fruition when (DWSD) sent a letter of termination to the City of Flint.”

And with regard to Flint leaving its KWA partnership to remain with GLWA, Wright said: “If that were the decision, the people of Flint can prepare to pay at least $600 million more for drinking water over the next 30 years.”

Wright also stated repeatedly the cost of the three-mile test pipeline should be the state’s responsibility. Late on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Snyder’s office said the issue is under review.

“We are aware of the need for the additional section of pipeline if the city decides on that source and that cost is part of ongoing budget discussions with the Legislature,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said. “The Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee is working on a report to help identify all potential primary and backup water sources — which should be helpful in providing additional information to the city, county and state on this topic.”

Since taking office in November, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who is KWA board member, has declined to publicly support the KWA project. Throughout nearly two hours of meeting time, she sat quietly listening to public comments and staff presentations without saying a word.

At the close of the contentious meeting, she stepped into the fray. She first attempted to calm concerns that Flint might one day use its river as a potential backup water source.

“That’s not something we’re considering,” she said. “I want the people to know that.”

Weaver also defended the time she is making in determining whether to support KWA.

“We’ve heard your voices loud and clear...,” she said. “Your voices will continue to be heard, and we’re going to fight for what is best for the people of Flint.”


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