Flint: ‘All clear’ for drinking water years away

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Flint — Mayor Karen Weaver and the head of Flint’s underground pipe replacement program said Tuesday they think it will be more than two years until they can recommend residents drink their tap water without filters.

Weaver and retired Brig. Gen. Michael C. McDaniel told reporters they do not anticipate giving an “all clear” until crews have removed every lead service line in the city, a process they expect to complete by the end of 2019 — if they receive enough funding.

“There have been constant improvements (in water quality), there’s no question about that, but I don’t consider that an all clear,” McDaniel said shortly before his speech at a national water infrastructure conference in Flint.

Lead levels in Flint water dropped below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion in the most recent six-month testing period, with 90 percent of samples testing at 12 ppb from July 1 through the end of 2016.

But McDaniel said he wants to see Flint lead levels consistently test below 10 ppb, a new state standard informally proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder, but not yet considered by Michigan legislators.

“Until we have the service lines replaced, we regain the trust of the residents and the water has been tested for four consecutive quarters and is below the state action level of 10 parts per billion, until then, I recommend continued use of the filters,” he said.

Weaver agreed with his assessment.

“It’ll take probably the next three years until we’re able to replace the estimated 20,000 lead and galvanized pipes,” she said in opening remarks at the water conference.

“But I do take heart when I consider that with the proper will and financing, Flint can and will end up with a state of the art drinking water system that once again will earn the residents’ trust.”

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said Monday that February testing showed 90 percent of “Tier 1” sites in Flint testing below 8 ppb. A Tier I site is a home with a lead service line or meets criteria to make it eligible to determine compliance with the federal Lead and Copper Rule.

“We have made tremendous progress, vast progress, in terms of the lead that has been removed from the system,” said Robert Kaplan, Region 5 administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, on Tuesday.

Flint is believed to have some 20,000 underground service lines, many of which were damaged when the city began using harsh Flint River water in April 2014. State regulators failed to require the use of corrosion control chemicals, and the pipes ended up leaching lead into the city water supply.

Nationwide, there may be as many as 10 million underground lead pipes, said Kaplan, calling Flint the “tip of the iceberg” for a larger problem.

“This really shined a light on what’s in the ground,” Kapland said. “You can count on one hand the communities that have taken this on and addressed it.”

A ‘dumb and dangerous’ rule

The state of Michigan continues to supply Flint residents with free filters and bottled water despite improving tap quality. Snyder has shied away from offering any timeline on an “all clear” for drinking tap water without a filter, saying science alone will dictate the decision.

But in his own keynote address at the national water conference on Tuesday, Snyder continued his critique of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, calling it “dumb and dangerous.”

The governor first proposed creating tougher state standards, including a 10 ppb lead action level, in April. He said Tuesday he still plans on “model legislation” being introduced this year.

“The crisis here should not have happened,” Snyder told the crowd of water and infrastructure industry experts. “It wasn’t right, and it is something that needed to be addressed. Mistakes were made. It was a case of changing the water source, having aging infrastructure and some bad decisions.”

The important thing now is to move forward, Snyder said, touting various state efforts to improve not only Flint’s water system and public health, but also the local economy.

Aging infrastructure is a national and international issue that must be addressed before more calamities, he said, calling the three-day water conference an early point in that conversation.

He noted a massive sinkhole that opened up in Fraser in January and a boil water advisory issued last week in Detroit.

“They’re not just warning signs, they’re hurting people today, but they’re telling us around the country we have problems we should be doing something about,” Snyder said.

Kaplan agreed the federal Lead and Copper Rule is in desperate need of an update. He said the aging rules were a “root cause” of the Flint water crisis.

“It was a rule that had the best of intentions in 1991, and it doesn’t fit the current situation in so many different respects. It needs to be overhauled,” Kaplan said.

But the more pressing need, Kaplan said, is “shovels in the ground” to replace aging water infrastructure across the country.

Flint pipe replacement gets copper boost

Flint has so far replaced roughly 800 pipes, short of the 1,000 it had hoped to replace in 2017. Old records handwritten on notecards have made the process difficult — crews found copper pipes at roughly 160 homes they had expected lead — as has weather.

“We live in Michigan, and we have winter, which stops us,” Weaver told reporters. “Even though it didn’t completely shut us down this year because we had a mild winter, it certainly slowed things down. That’s the reality of it.”

Snyder and state legislators have so far approved roughly $253 million in funding related to the Flint water crisis, including $27 million for lead pipe replacement. Congress has approved another $100 million that Flint is expected to access. The city plans to spend about $40 million of the federal funding on pipe replacement.

But the final price tag for pipe replacement will top $100 million, according to McDaniel, who said Flint does not currently have enough money to complete its three-year plan, even with anticipated federal funding.

“We’ve got enough money for 2017,” he said. “We’ve got about half the money we need for 2018. We don’t have money for 2019.”

Weaver announced Tuesday the national Copper Development Association has helped the city acquire nearly 200,000 feet of copper piping to replace services lines, saving the city and state approximately $1 million.

“That’s a big help,” she said.

Weaver, who has clashed with Snyder over discontinuation of a bill credit program for Flint water customers, thanked the governor for state support he has already approved but urged additional funding for pipe and fixture replacement at Flint homes and water treatment plant updates.

“Flint residents have already paid a price for this man-made disaster,” she said.

Flint expects to accelerate its pipe program over the next three years, replacing some 18,000 pipes over that span. The city is set to hire additional crews, McDaniel said, and is also doing “large scale hydro-excavation” to find out what type of pipes a home has before digging up the earth for full replacement.

“We just weren’t able to do that as accurately as we wanted because of city records,” McDaniel said.