Flint looks to pilot program to study lead pipe removal

Jim Lynch, Chad Livengood, and Jonathan Oosting

Flint’s City Council members will consider a pair of contracts in the coming week to clear the way for the next phase of a lead pipe replacement plan they hope will finally solve the city’s long-term water contamination problems.

Mayor Karen Weaver’s administration is recommending contracts with two local firms for a pilot study examining the costs and logistics involved in replacing the city’s lead service lines. Removal of those lines is considered a key component in providing a solution to the lead contamination issues that have plagued the city for more than two years.

The pilot study for Weaver’s fast-start replacement program, however, has similar goals to one conducted earlier this year by the state that resulted in lines being removed from 33 Flint homes.

“The goal of the city’s pilot study is to basically do an analysis of the cost to replace the water service lines,” said Brigadier General Michael McDaniel, manager of the project, in a press release Wednesday. “The plan is to do up to 250 homes. We know what our estimated cost is per home, but with other groups reporting different numbers and after receiving higher bids than expected to do the job, we feel this is an important step to help determine the most logical and efficient way to proceed.”

Flint’s issues began in April 2014 when the city, while under the control of an emergency financial manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, changed the source of its drinking water. Following decades with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, the city began drawing from the Flint River. It was a cost-saving move meant to tide the city over until a new regional system — the Karegnondi Water Authority — could come online.

But state and city officials failed to utilize corrosion controlling chemicals, leading to lead contamination of the drinking water. Flint returned to the Detroit-based system, now called the Great Lakes Water Authority, in October. And while water quality has improved in the months since, progress has been slower than hoped for.

With public confidence in the water system shaken, line replacement is viewed by many as the only solution that will finally put residents at ease.

In a statement released Wednesday, Mayor Karen Weaver addressed steps once Flint companies Goyette Mechanical and WT Stevens Construction Inc. are approved and finish their pilot program.

“We anticipate there will be another RFP (request for proposal) soon using the $25 million the City of Flint recently received from the state,” the statement reads. “The city has also received a $2 million grant from the state slated for service line replacement. The grant includes a provision stating the cost per address must be no more than $5,000, so that’s another reason why this next pilot study is necessary and will provide valuable information as we work to get the lead out of Flint.

“We are making progress. It may not be happening as fast as many would like, including myself, but it is happening. This is a very important process and we want to get it right.”

Gov. Rick Snyder addressed questions Wednesday from reporters about whether he thinks Flint is moving too slow to replace lead pipelines running into private residences.

“People do want to move forward with urgency, I think we all agree on that,” Snyder said after an event at the Capitol. “And when you have a new program like this, there can be challenges. So I think they’re going to continue to work to improve the process.”

The governor declined to characterize the speed and pace of Flint’s pilot programs.

“As a practical matter, we want to be a supportive partner,” Snyder said. “And I appreciate they’re the lead on this, and we’re going to support them on working through the issues and hopefully moving forward as quickly as practicable.”

Snyder recently signed appropriations bills that boost state and federal funding for Flint’s disaster relief to $236 million for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal year.

That sum includes the $25 million for removing and replacing lead service lines.

Flint on June 30 submitted to the Department of Environmental Quality a long-term project plan for water system work and pipe replacement as it seeks additional funding through the federally funded Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund program.

“In order to make the City of Flint water distribution system operate at its optimal performance, complete replacement of the water distribution system, including pipe, rehabilitation of storage facilities, and replacement of pumping stations would need to take place,” according to the project plan.

The plan outlines $96.4 million in priority work and another $140 million in long-term projects the city would ideally complete over the next two decades. The first phase of the plan, estimated to cost $34 million and potentially completed by 2018, includes various system improvements and replacement of 1,000 service line pipes.

“Due to the current political and financial circumstances that the city is experiencing,” Flint is seeking forgivable loans through the state, a rare request that DEQ will consider as it reviews project plans from communities around the state that are seeking funding for fiscal year 2017.

The review process “involves all of the the projects that are essentially competing for the money we have,” said revolving loan section supervisor Sonya Butler.

The state is expected to complete its initial review by October and submit to the Environmental Protection Agency a draft plan for distributing loans. Once the DEQ determines how much funding it will have available next fiscal year, it will identify which projects it will fund.

As of October, the Drinking Water Revolving Fund program had provided $857 million in low-interest loans for 277 projects since it was established in 1997, according to the DEQ.

JLynch@detroitnews.com

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