By Robert R. Thomas
The Flint city administration’s goal of removing lead service lines paid for by $2 million in state money has been jeopardized by unexpectedly high contractor bids, Steve Branch, Mayor Karen Weaver’s chief of staff, explained to about 70 partners in the Flint Water Recovery Group meeting last week under the dome at City Hall.
In the meantime, the process of attempting to provide safe water through the existing pipes continues, but with no firm date predicted as to when water from the tap will be safe. When pressed, Richard Baird, senior advisor to the governor and designated “transformation manager” for Flint, declined to commit to a date.
“We screwed this up pretty badly going into it and nobody wants to screw it up the second time,” Baird said. “My granddad used to say there is no learning in the second kick of the mule. And that’s really where we are.”
Branch reviewed the history and status of the so-called Fast Start Program to remove all lead service lines and all galvanized service lines in the city.
A pilot program for 30 homes started in mid-April based on a $500,000 grant from the state concluded successfully at various locations around the city, he said.
However, the plan for overall lead service line replacement hit a stumbling block. The administration’s estimates were about $4,000 to $5,000 per home. But the bids came in at $6,700 to $8,800 per home.
“On top of that,” Branch said, “is an additional $2200 to fix the street. That is not included in the $2 million or the additional $55 million needed to fix the lead service lines problem.”
The contractors were asked to resubmit bids, which Branch said they have done. The RFPs are being evaluated by the administration.
Crumbling water mains a concern
Jamie Gaskin, CEO of the United Way, and who said he was speaking as a resident, offered that while replacing the lead service lines is critical, it will be money wasted if the city does not deal with the replacement of the crumbling mains. “We need to replace the pipe as part of a comprehensive process,” said Gaskin.
In Flint 60% of the water residents pay for is lost to hundreds of water main breaks per year—over 400 last year, he reported.
The water delivery mains are another major Flint infrastructure problem —and that of many American cities. It is critical that residents understand, Gaskin said, that simply replacing the lead service lines is not the solution to our overall infrastructure decay; it is only part of the process.
Pipe flushing still needed
Flushing the pipes is another part of the process in keeping water pushing contaminants through the pipes rather than stagnating, according to Nick Anderson, spokesman for retired National Guard Brig. Gen. Michael McDaniel who oversees the “Flint Action and Sustainability Team,” or FAST, to replace the pipes. Anderson stressed how important it is to keep water flowing through the pipes.
Baird reported that “the process to fix the lead problem is by all indications what is supposed to be happening. Pipes are being recoated; the orthophosphates and the filters are doing their jobs.”
Baird added that the water treatment plant’s chlorination is currently handled by the EPA and the DEQ. The sewage treatment plant remains another piece of the crumbling water and sewage infrastructure that needs addressing.
He also advised that when the pipe-pulling begins, the process will also be disruptive to the crumbling system in ways no one knows because it has never been done before. Staying on bottled and filtered water should be expected, said Baird.
City system needs right-sizing
But the big problem, as Gaskins described it, is much more encompassing than replacing lead service lines. Flint’s larger water problem is the mains. Without the mains, the service lines are nothing. Without the right-sizing of the system and the replacing of the mains, Gaskin warned, the city will have an unsustainable water system.
The water main breaks cause both contamination and stagnation. Flushing the mains helps alleviate both problems. The best flushing method is regular use of the water, he said.
“Here’s the problem,” Baird said. “If we can’t get people using the water, whether they drink it or not—wash their cars, water their plants, just run it through the system, I don’t think we can get on this problem. Because that has to happen.” He affirmed there are currently no future allocations for periodic flushing procedures.
Bottled water plentiful, storage an issue
Baird described the impending ending of the Emergency Declaration on Aug. 14 as “nothing more than the end of a cost-sharing arrangement; it is not the end of water availability.” He assured that after that date “anything we buy will be 100% on the state’s nickel. And I am here to tell you that we are not going to limit water quality.”
Both Baird and Branch said bottled water is plentiful at safe state and local storage facilities. Water donations are still coming into Flint. They should be directed to the Food Bank for proper storage and distribution.
Baird voiced concerns about questionable local storage facilities as hot weather and flimsy plastic bottles meet in an overheated environment. He also said all Flint water scam reports of stealing water intended for Flint citizens and selling it elsewhere are being vigorously investigated.
Questions then ensued as to when all nine city wards will have water pod stations. Six wards have pods and another is about to get one. Pods for the remaining two wards is being vigorously pursued, said Baird.
In related discussion, Peter Levine, executive director of the Genesee County Medical Society, addressed concerns about the recent GCMS press release that advised caution when it comes to who should and who should not drink filtered tap water. The purpose of the press release was not to dispute the general safety of filtered tap water, Levine assured, but to protect those at high risk by erring on the side of safety. He asserted bottled water is the most cautious approach.
Tony Lasher, executive director of the regional Red Cross, reported on the July 22 transition from the Red Cross water distribution system to homes of those who are impaired. He said workers hired by Michigan Works will take over the delivery duties of the Red Cross. Some workers have been hired and applications are available through Flint Works. The biggest requirements are a spotless driving and criminal record because the workers will be entering homes.
The next two regularly scheduled meetings of the Flint Water Recovery group have been cancelled. The next meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. July 21 at 3 p.m. under the dome at City Hall.
Staff writer Robert R. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Editor Jan Worth-Nelson contributed to this report. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.