Witness: Water delivery in Flint would cost $9M a month

Holly Fournier, and Jennifer Chambers

Detroit — It would cost $9 million a month and activation of the National Guard to deliver bottled water to every household in Flint, a Michigan State Police captain in charge of the city’s water operation testified Wednesday.

Capt. Christopher Kelenske made his comment in federal court in the case of Flint residents and activists who are asking a federal judge to order home delivery of bottled water as their city struggles with two years of lead-poisoned tap water.

Kelenske said 96 percent of Flint homes have a water filter.

Of the 4 percent who do not have filters, Kelenske said officials have found many of the properties were vacant homes.

Asked how much has been given to Flint residents as part of the water operation, Kelenske said 2.7 million cases of water, 136,000 water filters and 297,000 cartridges.

In all, $31 million from multiple sources has been spent, Kelenske said.

Kelenske said, water is delivered to 1,250 households in Flint and water is made available at nine sites across the city.

Delivering water to the 30,000 to 40,000 water customer households would require more drivers and resources, Kelenske said.

“It’s not just putting water in a truck a delivering it. There are a lot of logistics. I would have to call out the National Guard, one of the most expensive resources out there,” he said.

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The motion for door-to-door delivery of water and filters was filed in March by Concerned Pastors for Social Action, Flint resident Melissa Mays, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, according to an NRDC press release.

The case is before U.S. District Judge David Lawson. Testimony was completed late Wednesday. The judge set a briefing deadline of Sept. 22 and will issue his decision at a later date.

Jacqueline Childress, a 60-year-old Flint resident, took the stand Wednesday morning to discuss her family’s difficulties getting safe drinking water.

The retired General Motors inspector said she lives with her 40-year-old son. A younger son lives and works on the other side of the city. After a traffic crash years ago, Childress does not own a vehicle.

“I have to get a ride” to get water, she said on the stand.

Water access issues have plagued Childress’ home since the water crisis began, she testified. Initially, volunteers flocked to Flint to deliver water, and a social worker installed a filter on her home faucet.

“But somehow it broke the faucet,” Childress said. “No faucet head, no filter.”

Childress said she could not afford the $90 cost to repair the faucet. She was unaware until told in court Wednesday that a local plumbers’ union might be able to repair the faucet for free.

As national attention to the crisis waned, the deliveries also trickled to a stop, Childress said. She then began paying for rides to distribution centers whenever her younger son was unable to help.

She asks neighbors for water when she runs out. “You don’t want to ask anyone for water,” she said. “But you gotta have water.”

Attorneys representing state and city officials being sued in the complaint, including State Treasurer Nick Khouri and members of the city’s transition board, allege the plaintiffs want the court to take control of relief operations in Flint and disrupt the system in place.

David L Sabuda, Flint’s interim CFO who’s been on the job 40 days, testified about the city’s water fund.

Flint’s attorney, Sheldon Klein, asked Sabuda if the monthly cost of delivering bottled water door-to-door was $9 million, how would it affect the city’s water fund, which is used to pay for water.

“It would be devastating,” Sabuda said.

Asked Klein: “How many months could you do it if city was forced? How long would it take for the water fund to be drained?”

Replied Sabuda: “1.5 months.”

Jacques McNelly, with the state’s budget office, testified Wednesday the state has spent $212 million on the Flint Water crisis.

Earlier Wednesday, testimony focused on the volunteer group Crossing Water, which provides bottled water, filters and other social services to Flint residents.

Member Michael Hood took the stand, first demonstrating how to install a water filter and later sparring with a city attorney over his organization’s data.

Hood claimed at least 52 percent of Flint homes visited by Crossing Waters experienced a documented filter problem, but city attorney Frederick Berg walked him through the data submitted as evidence, trying to recreate the calculations.

Berg came up with a much smaller percentage, but Hood countered he was misinterpreting the data, which was compiled by another member of Crossing Water, not present in court Wednesday.

Hood emphasized his organization’s desire to help Flint residents while also maintaining their privacy, explaining the redacted data presented in court.

Illiteracy, cognitive issues and elderly residents are among obstacles some face when installing water filters, Hood testified. A few weeks ago, he encountered a family using a “useless” filter with no cartridge.

Another witness, Pastor Robert Blake of Flint’s AME Vernon Chapel, has spearheaded his church’s “water ministry,” which involves distributing bottles onsite and to homes.

Churches from around the country donated water to Blake’s church when the Flint water crisis hit national news, but contributions have since dwindled. The church now relies on a local food bank, which is supplied by the government, and other smaller donations.

In total, the church has delivered or distributed around 55,000 cases of water, he said.

“I call it liquid gold,” Blake testified. “It’s more than just a crisis. Lifestyles have been just totally disrupted. It’s living out of a bottle; that’s what I call it. Living out of a bottle.”

Another witness, Cynthia Roper, first visited Flint in January to address the water crisis, she said. The Michigan Voice director and volunteer at Flint Rising spent about an hour on the stand, detailing her efforts to canvass the city each weekend, looking for residents in critical need of help.

Roper detailed obstacles residents face trying to access distribution centers, including lack of transportation. Around 18 percent of Flint households lack a vehicle and around 16,000 homes have no internet access, she said.

“In my view, getting water delivered in particular to those that don’t have vehicles is very critical,” Roper said. “I think that this has just continued to cause a lot of pain and suffering for families that already have a lot of suffering and pain.”

But Roper admitted on cross examination she does not know how much it would cost to implement home delivery of water bottles. When asked by Klein if officials should forgo lead-pipe replacement in favor of water deliveries, Roper maintained that the government should handle both projects.

“We aren’t doing it as an either/or,” she said. “In this country we should be able to turn on our tap and get safe drinking water ... And I think it’s wrong for a system to be put in place where residents are relying on the charity of others to be providing safe drinking water.”

The legal saga began in January, when the parties filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The suit asked for court intervention to “secure safe drinking water” for Flint residents.

About two months later, the groups filed the motion for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to direct water bottle deliveries to Flint residents.

HFournier@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4616

Twitter: @HollyPFournier