Flint mayor: Water fix could cost as much as $1.5B

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said Thursday replacing her city’s myriad lead-leaching water pipes could cost as much as $1.5 billion, while the state’s top health official deemed Flint’s water unsafe to drink without filtration.

Gov. Rick Snyder, right, met Thursday morning with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to discuss the city’s on-going lead contaminated water crisis two days after declaring a state of emergency in Genesee County.

“We have not done a final assessment of that,” Weaver said Thursday after a closed-door meeting with Gov. Rick Snyder at his Lansing office. “We’ve heard from millions up to $1.5 billion. We’re doing assessments right now to see what it’s going to cost.”

Hoping to establish “a very close partnership,” Snyder met Thursday morning with Weaver to discuss the city’s drinking water crisis two days after declaring a state of emergency in Genesee County.

Even though Flint’s water problems have persisted for 19 months, state officials began kicking their response to the crisis into gear Thursday.

The State Emergency Operations Center began deploying state workers to begin educating Flint residents on getting children tested for lead and installing water filters on their faucets to block harmful contaminants.

“We don’t want, at this time, people using the city water,” said Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive. “They should be using filters and/or bottled water at this time. This needs to happen until the health alert is lifted.”

Officials don’t know how long the health emergency in Flint will persist or how widespread lead poisoning is among the city’s 100,000 residents.

Using mapping software as well as water and blood testing results, state workers are starting to assess which areas of Flint have the highest concentrations of lead contamination, said Capt. Chris Kelenske, deputy director of emergency management at the Michigan State Police.

“There’s a lot we don’t know yet,” Kelenske said.

Snyder and Weaver agreed to set up an inter-governmental agency group to work with the State Emergency Operations Center, which was activated Tuesday when Snyder issued his emergency declaration over the safety of Flint’s drinking water supply.

“We’re going to continue on the path of taking positive actions to deal with this difficult issue, to do the best we can going forward,” Snyder told reporters.

Flint officials have been seeking forgivable loans from the state and federal government to replace lead-leaching water service pipes linked to elevated lead levels in the blood of some Flint children and adults.

But the looming issue is what it will cost to replace up to 500 miles of underground, 75-year-old iron pipe in Flint that may have been damaged by the flow of the corrosive Flint River water through private and public service lines to about 33,000 homes.

“This is the next infrastructure challenge for the state of Michigan. The governor’s very aware of that,” said Harvey Hollins III, director of Snyder’s Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives.

Snyder has tapped Hollins to be his point person between state agencies and Flint. Discussions are underway to create a new “funding mechanisms” to help Flint and other older urban cities replace aging infrastructure, Hollins said.

“This problem has been exacerbated by the most recent issue that the governor has declared a crisis, so we have to fix that,” he told reporters. “This is a fix that’s going to happen over time, not tomorrow.”

Water filters have been distributed to between 15,000 and 20,000 Flint households, Hollins said, leaving at least 13,000 homes for state and local officials to reach.

In the short term, Snyder vowed Thursday that state agencies would “take tangible measures to improve the water situation in Flint, both in terms of more testing, more filters, long-term solutions, better follow-up health care for the affected individuals, looking at education opportunities.”

The governor said the state would provide a “broad-based suite of services to improve things in Flint for this unfortunate situation that I do apologize for, with respect to our role in this issue.”

Snyder promised to meet with Weaver last week after, for the first time, publicly apologizing for the state Department of Environmental Quality’s mishandling of Flint’s switch to Flint River’s corrosive water that caused lead to leach from the city’s aging pipelines.

“This has been a very productive, positive meeting,” Weaver told reporters. “... This is a partnership, and we’re going to be looking at how we move Flint forward.”

A Snyder-appointed emergency manager, current Detroit Public Schools emergency manager Darnell Earley, was in charge of Flint in April 2014 when the city temporarily switched water supplies from Detroit’s water system to save money while a new regional water pipeline is constructed.

Shortly after Flint switched water supplies, residents began complaining about the strange color, smell and taste of the Flint River water. State officials have admitted the DEQ failed to require Flint to add corrosion controlling agents to the water to prevent lead pipes from leaching the harmful chemical element into the drinking water supply.

“This is a situation that no one wished would have ever happened, but it has happened, and we want to be open and honest and say, ‘Let’s address it, proactively. Let’s go after the issues both in terms of solving what historically what damage has been done, but also being proactive to prevent future damage and then to do good follow-up to say how we can help people who may have higher lead levels,’ ” Snyder said.

“We’re taking this extremely seriously.”

In October, Snyder worked with Weaver’s predecessor, Dayne Walling, to reconnect Flint to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s water supply from Lake Huron.

The Legislature quickly appropriated $6 million to pay for half of the $12 million reconnection cost. The Mott Foundation donated $4 million and the city of Flint had to pay $2 million.

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