By Jan Worth-Nelson
Flanked by a handful of state officials, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver announced this week that five of the city’s water distribution sites, called “PODS,” will be closed by the end of the summer — two Aug. 11 and three more Sept. 5.
The closures reflect the news that the city’s water is on the mend, with state officials reporting lead readings from recent testing well below federal “action levels.”
However, the surprise news was that the four remaining PODs, one each in the city’s north, south, east and west sides, will remain open indefinitely. Weaver said the agreement to keep some PODs open was reached after an intense meeting with the governor and his team yesterday and after “fighting hard.”
“Flint residents have spoken out,” she said. “We’ve talked about not wanting the PODs to close, we don’t want the bottled water and the filters to go away. We want those to continue to be provided.
“The grassroots organizations and residents have joined forces to express their concern about the health and wellbeing of our community, and we’re glad that they did,” she added.
Pastor Wallace Hill of the Concerned Pastors for Social Action said he was happy about the decision to keep some PODs open, because despite the improving numbers,”the trust factor of our residents is not there, and we just don’t want to pull the rug out.”
PODs scheduled to close at the end of the business day Aug. 11 are the the Second Ward site at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church and the Third Ward site at Calvary Missionary Baptist Church.
PODs scheduled to close at the end of the business day Sept. 5 are the Fifth Ward site at the old Flint Farmers’ Market on E. Boulevard Dr., the Seventh Ward site at Grace Emmanuel Baptist Church on Lapeer Road, and the Eighth Ward site at Linoln Park United Methodist Church.
Those to remain open indefinitely are the First Ward site at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, the Fourth Ward site in the Franklin Avenue lot, the Sixth Ward site at West Court Street Church of God, and the Ninth Ward site at Eastown Bowling Alley on Dort Highway.
Whichever PODs are open will keep the same hours as usual: noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The state’s top representative in Flint, senior advisor to Gov. Rick Snyder Richard Baird, a Flint native, voiced confidence about the city’s water.
“Make no mistake about it, Flint’s water quality has been restored,” he said. “And the state’s commitment to the city extends well beyond restoring the water quality, and we want to support the city of Flint and its residents as Flint continues to recover and rebuild.”
He said the state has spent over $300 million in Flint, not counting the $100 from the federal government, for water quality improvement, service line replacement, health care services, food resources, educational resources and job training.
“I’m drinking the water because I paid very close attention to all of the science and I know the water is good to drink. I also know that filters are smart to use because all of the construction that is going on,” he said. But he added the Mayor and her team had made a compelling case for keeping some of the PODs open.
The mayor’s assessment of the city’s path through the crisis was more measured. Asked by a Michigan Radio reporter if the crisis is over, she replied, “We have made so much progress, but we have a long way to go — we’re getting through it..this is a tipping point and we can see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we have work to do.”
According to the terms of a lawsuit against the state settled last year, as the mayor explained, “If Flint’s water quality met federal testing requirements for two consecutive six-month monitoring periods [which it has] the state could gradually start closing the PODs, with all of the PODS scheduled to close this September.” The lawsuit was filed by resident Melissa Mays, the Concerned Pastors for Social Action, the ACLU, and the National Resources Defense Council.
Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and former interim director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, noted in the second — and most recent — six-month period, 90 percent of Flint’s water had lead tested at 7 parts per billion, well below the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion.
“However, just because you can close the PODs doesn’t mean that you should close the PODS, and the residents are not ready for these resources to go away,” Weaver said. “State officials have heard our voices and have agreed to keep some of the PODS open indefinitely, and that’s good news for the people of Flint.”
Calling the changes in the city “dramatic,” Creagh noted that in the equivalent January-June period of 2016 when the crisis was in full force, the city’s water measured 20 parts per billion.
He said random residential sampling around the city — including the worst hit by the crisis — has come in at 6 ppb, and added MDEQ officials will continue monitoring.
“As you may have heard,” he said, “Flint is one of the most monitored water systems in the country” — more than six times more in some categories than what is required by law.
“Even though by fact the Lead and Copper Rule [a regulatory safe drinking water element of the Environmental Protection Agency] does not require removal of the lead service lines,” Creagh said, “we are fully supportive of the Mayor’s effort to modernize the city’s infrastructure to replace the service lines and ensure quality drinking water that meets or exceeds standards of the Lead and Copper Rule and the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
Weaver reported about 2,500 lead-tainted pipes have been replaced in the city since the pipeline replacement work began in earnest this year. Four contractors are aiming to complete work at 6,000 homes in 2017, and an estimated 18,000 in the next three years.
Creagh advised residents that they play “an important role: taking steps like flushing pipes to heal the systems.” He said the more residents use their water, “the more it will help the system improve.”
Captain Chris Kelenske, commander and deputy state director of the Michigan State Police Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division, summarized statistics from the Flint water distribution system, which has been coordinated by the MSP.
He said since Jan. 2016, the PODs have distributed 6,228,267 cases of bottled water, 159,492 filters, 352,170 replacement cartridges, and 59,723 test kits. Though he said use of the PODs is a constantly changing number, according to the most recent numbers the sites have been distributing an average each day of 16,594 cases of water, 69 filters, 166 filter replacement cartridges, and 44 test kits.
Baird said the CORE team — 160 Flint residents hired to go door to door offering filters and checking to be sure they were installed properly and being used — had knocked on 320,000 doors and had 100,000 conversations. The CORE efforts will continue, according to George Krisztian of the MDEQ, though their duties may change somewhat.
Employees of the closed PODs will be “redeployed” in some cases and are being offered job training, Baird said, adding that a number of them have developed job skills already that have enabled them to get hired elsewhere.
Baird said the state has delivered 474,000 pounds of fresh food, replaced 1400 fixtures to school, day care centers and adult care centers and in 2300 homes.
In addition, expanded health care coverage for pregnant women and children up to 21 affected by the water crisis has found 2600 new Medicaid enrollees, 26,000 individual with current coverage enrolled for case-management.
Returning to the theme of the community’s distrust, Baird said, “It’s going to take some time. It’s going to take folks who understand that the water recovery is real — and those people will help persuade other people. Over time, it will evolve.”
“The bottled water is a symbol that I have available to me,” he added, “if I’m just not sure yet if the system is good to use.”
Baird said the latest agreement with the city was made possible, “not by press, not by argumentative activity, not by conflict, but by people who actually care about this city who got together and said we have to work together.” He said the mayor and her team made a compelling case for continuing the delivery of water. “That is how the process is supposed to work — not through threats and drama,” he said.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.