By Nic Custer
Experts answered questions about water infrastructure, nutrition, education and donations at a Flint Area Public Affairs Forum panel discussion March 7, titled “Beating the Lead Crisis: Where are we?”
Laura Sullivan, Flint’s board member on the Karegnondi Water Authority and Kettering University mechanical engineering professor, explained why it is difficult to predict how water will act in the city’s pipes.
Sullivan said it is a complicated water system because the inside of the corroded pipes are no longer smooth and the now pitted surfaces in the pipes can affect how well chlorine is distributed throughout the system. She said the presence of bacteria in the water or iron coming off of pipes binds to chlorine and lowers the water’s chlorine level before it makes it through the entire system.
She explained when the Environmental Protection Agency began working to determine what was causing lead in the water, they set up a “loop rig” test, which uses different pipes from around the city and creates a scale model of the water distribution system. The loop rig system is made of cast iron mains and copper, galvanized steel and lead service lines. The system tests treated water in different conditions and at different levels of chlorine to see how it comes out on the other end. By simulating how it works in a lab, Sullivan explained, they can usually predict how it happens in the real world. But Sullivan said Flint’s water was less predictable then they thought.
Investigations into “something we never had to explore”
“I think it’s safe to say in Flint everything is an investigation into something we never had to fully explore before because of the condition of corroded pipes and the passivation layer that had to be put on a corroded surface,” Sullivan said.
Passivation is the process of building a protective layer on the inside of pipes so they will not corrode.
Answering questions about why the city decided not to use plastic or concrete pipes, Sullivan said although plastic pipes are used in warmer regions, they would need to be buried very deep in the ground to withstand the freeze and thaw cycles. Concrete could also be susceptible to Michigan winters. Plastic pipes were considered as replacement material for Flint’s main pipes but based on several concerns from experts, it was determined they wouldn’t be a safe solution for the city.
She said the Karegnondi Water Authority board hasn’t met since August and she didn’t have new details about its progress or direction. She is regularly supplied with financial audit reports but not much other information.
No significant impact on tested local gardens
Erin Caudell, The Local Grocer owner and gardening advocate, addressed access to healthy food in the city. She said more than 325 food gardens had their soil tested for lead and no significant impact was discovered.
“Many of us were also concerned about…Flint having less access to healthy food and less grocery stores in the city. There was a lot of concern the response be long term and make systemic change in our community,” Caudell said.
Two community-led grocery stores are being developed on the north end to help address this problem.
Caudell is part of a group which launched Flint Fresh: A Mobile Market last August, to bring fresh produce to different locations around the city. This spring, a second mobile market truck will be added to meet high demand. The market, open five days a week, visits Hurley Hospital, senior apartments, neighborhood centers, senior centers and other locations. Customers can use EBT or SNAP benefits and Double Up Food Bucks at the mobile market. Caudell said the group would like to develop a door-to-door delivery service bringing boxes of fresh produce and fruit to residents. The group is strategically planning where the mobile markets travel to based on areas of greatest need for healthy food access but also willing to take suggestions from residents. More information is available at Flintfresh.com.
Increasing access to healthy food
Caudell said part of increasing access to healthy foods involves supporting local growers. Genesee Conservation District will fund more than 20 hoop houses this year for local gardeners to grow year round. The organization distributed 17 hoop houses last year. The Flint Farmers Market will also have business support classes for new farmers. Edible Flint, an urban gardening cooperative, is a hiring a grower support position to source produce locally in Flint for the mobile market.
Additionally, efforts are underway to make sure food and recipes supplied to residents are culturally appropriate and what people want to cook. Artina Sadler, a food navigator, is working with communities and nutritionists to develop those recipes.
Community Foundation supports library, early childhood center
Isaiah Oliver, currently vice president of community impact at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, explained how the Flint Child Health and Development fund is being allocated. The CFGF raised $2 million last year alone to support Flint’s 10,000 zero–to-6 year olds.
He said the foundation aims to spend $50 million over the next 10 years to support Flint children. CFGF spent $2 million last year and will grant $3 million in 2017. Oliver said they hope to grant $5 million each subsequent year.
As that cohort of zero-to-six-year olds age, CFGF will change the funding strategy to meet their needs for support. Oliver said the goal is to fill gaps state and federal funding doesn’t cover. He added education on the crisis and advocacy for additional funds are also part of the strategy. Some of the foundation’s 2016 grants include $516,700 to Flint Public Library for a 3-year Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program which mails age appropriate books to children each month to support literacy.
CFGF also granted $360,000 to UM-Flint to cover a portion of Cummings Great Expectations Early Childhood Center’s $14 million renovations. The school, located behind Durant Tuuri Mott at 500 Gladwin Street, will host 220 zero to 6 year olds as a feeder program for Flint schools. He said it will help children become kindergarten ready.
Montessori program expanding in public schools
Ben Pauli, Kettering University assistant professor, spoke about a pilot Montessori school program in Durant Tuuri Mott, 1518 University Ave. Kindergarten and first grade classes began in August after Pauli and other parents pitched the idea to Flint schools.
Pauli said the Montessori system was developed for non-traditional kids with learning disabilities, but is also nurturing for gifted students. The class has a 17- student cap and non-traditional format. Students don’t sit in desks. They work in various stations around the classroom.
He said the real benefit of the courses is they provide students with critical thinking skills and foster a critical attitude towards authority. Pauli said the Montessori program expects to add a grade each year. If it is successful, it may become a standalone Montessori school like a program in Okemos has done. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 760-1232 for more information.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Isaiah Oliver is vice president of community impact at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, not its president. The president is Kathi Horton. A CFGF spokesperson said Oliver is set to assume that role in late May — Ed.
EVM staff writer Nic Custer can be reached at email@example.com.