By Robert R. Thomas
Deciphering Flint’s water bills and the coming state “credits,” assessing the prospects of pending lawsuits, and considering the long-term impact of the city’s water crisis were among topics covered at a community meeting March 10 at the Flint Public Library.
Titled “Today and Tomorrow—Water in Flint,” the gathering, featuring nine panelists, was hosted by Flint Neighborhoods United, a collaboration of block clubs, neighborhood associations and neighborhood watches.
The panel included representatives of the local, state and federal government as well as from various disaster relief services. Questions for the panel came from moderator and local disc jockey Michael J. Thorpe and from the audience of about 50.
Thorpe opened the meeting with the news that Mayor Karen Weaver had just announced no water bills were going out this month because the bill was confusing regarding the adjustment section of the bill. He asked the panel for help in clarifying that the $30 million dollars from the state was to be a reimbursement for only the water portion of our bill.
The city’s representative, Seventh Ward Councilwoman Monica Galloway, replied that she had not heard that the mayor was not sending out water bills, but it was her understanding that to stop paying one’s water bill would adversely affect one’s reimbursement for the money residents have spent for water they couldn’t drink.
Rich Baird, Governor Snyder’s “transformation manager” and a top advisor, explained the methodology behind the credit, pointing out that the bill passed by both the state House and Senate is “a water consumption credit, actually the name of the bill….It is a credit, not a reimbursement per se.”
Both Baird and Galloway agreed the money is a credit, not a reimbursement, and if your bill is up to date, you will see the credit in not having to pay some future water bills. Baird, who himself lives in East Village, explained the elements of the water bills and acknowledging why it was so confusing to many residents.
Discussion then shifted to two key numbers relevant to the city’s water infrastructure. They are the 35-40 percent leakage rate and reports of 300 to 400 water main breaks per year. “That is just not sustainable,” Baird stated.
He also pointed out another issue: he said buying water by volume is a problem that will affect Flint’s water water supply even after changing to the Karegnondi water source. No matter the source, the city will still pay for the leakage because this is a fixed cost by volume, Baird pointed out.
Jamie Gaskin, chief executive director of the United Way, explained the 2-1-1 resources system as the “call hub” for local water information. Dave Gutierrez, division disaster director at the American Red Cross, described his organization’s continuing mobile distribution and its collaboration with United Way to get volunteers, a partnership expected to extend for the next year or more. He invited interested volunteers to fill out a simple form from the Red Cross.
Suzanne Cupal, public health supervisor from the Genesee County Health Department, offered resources including mobile blood-testing clinics and nutritional information packets. She also reminded residents to keep boiling only filtered water, cleaning aerators on faucets once a week, and not running hot water through filters.
Fire Department Chief Ray Barton said the water distribution centers would eventually shift from the Fire Department to a single distribution center in each ward. Meanwhile, he reported, there is an abundance of bottled water. Aside from the fire stations, there are 70 other water distribution sites. He said no one should go without water for lack of supply.
Regarding ongoing home lead readings, Mark Durno, a supervisory engineer and “on-scene coordinator” from the Environmental Protection Agency, explained it takes six months for corrosion-fighting phosphates to rebuild the protective coating inside the pipes. He noted that the city’s pipes are only three months into that process right now.
Asked if Governor Snyder had a timeline for returning to safe water, Baird said, “When it’s safe. We can’t get anything wrong.”
Corey Stern, a lawyer whose firm Levy, Koenigsberg LLP of New York City has filed 50 cases of children who have been lead-poisoned, offered legal advice regarding lawsuits. Suing the governor and government employees as individuals is problematic in Michigan, he said, because Michigan state law establishes immunity from lawsuits for individuals within government positions. But, he said, no such immunities exist in the law for suing private companies, which is why Stern’s firm is suing the private companies involved in the water disaster.
“We have sued Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam,” an engineering firm first hired to examine the water situation by the emergency manager. The lawsuit contends, Stern said, that “they’re a prime entity that were charged with the duty of making sure that when the water was switched from the Detroit water source to the Flint River that it was done appropriately.
“Part of our lawsuit is against Rowe Engineering,” he said, “who in 2011 was charged with evaluating the river as a water source and they were right and smart and told people that it wouldn’t really work because it would be just as expensive to make the water right as it would to just keep the water from Detroit.
“So it didn’t happen,” Stern said. “Fast forward to 2014. Rowe was hired by the city to serve as the city engineer during the period of time when LAN [Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam] was in the process of changing the water source. So the very company in 2011 that said it really couldn’t be done but for paying a lot of money was overseeing it as it was done by LAN.
“And then in 2015, after all of you complained and everybody showed up for meetings with discolored water, the city hired Veolia, which is another private company, to come and test the water, to check on LAN, to check on Rowe, to check on MDEQ.
“And Veolia on one day got on TV and said we are gonna look at the water as a source; we’re gonna look at the plant; we’re gonna see how it’s going into the plant; we’re gonna see how it’s leaving the plant; we’re gonna see how it’s getting to your house.
“And not six days later,” Stern concluded, “did they go public and say that it meets all EPA standards of the Water Safety Directory.”
The final question Thorpe posed for the panel was: How do you see the future of Flint?
Gaskin asserted that if homeowners don’t see some relief, the deterioration in real estate values will continue. A similar outcome can be expected, he said, if we do not care for the affected children with twenty years of annual enhanced medical screenings, childhood development and nutritional assistance.
Chris DeVriendt, emergency management manager for the Genesee County Office of the Sheriff, Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said he felt that Flint could become a model for the country because “Flint is a very strong community.”
Cupal declared the disaster does not define Flint residents. She pointed out that residents are learning about water science and nutrition and preparedness for future emergencies.
Durno pointed to how welcoming the people of Flint have been to him and his team.
“We visited hundreds of homes, collecting samples of hundreds of homes, and were amazed at how well-received we’ve been, how nice the community has been to us. And to be welcoming to us in such a tragic situation says a lot about the character of this community. And, you know, it all starts with character.”
Baird spoke to the opportunities for the city afforded by the crisis.
“I do think this is a tragedy, but I also think every crisis can be an opportunity,” he said. “I can tell you that we’re in conversations with a couple of auto suppliers that are so impressed with the resilience of the people of Flint that they want to relocate here; and we’re putting packages together to try to get them to relocate here.”
Barton agreed, “We are resilient.” He said that if the government wants to help, “they will show it by putting people first.”
Stern advised residents to remain conscious of what happened here. He added he has been honored and humbled by how Flint has received him.
The final comment of the night came from an attendee overheard saying, somewhat in amazement, to his companion: “This was a pretty civilized informative session.”
Staff writer and EVM columnist Robert R. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.