By Luther Houle
Highlights of the May Flint Neighborhoods United (FNU) monthly meeting included a short presentation by Jeremy Orr of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
In a 40-minute talk, Orr provided updates and answered questions about the status of the lead service line replacement program, an outgrowth of the Flint water crisis.
The meeting also offered information on upcoming spring events, including the “Light up the City,” observance starting this month. About 55 Flint officials, neighborhood leaders, and activists met on the lower level of the Flint Public Library Saturday, May 4, to share news and ask questions.
NRDC’s latest action demanded more efficient pipe replacement
“This work is personal for me,” Orr, attorney with the NRDC Safe Water Initiative, said. He explained that Michigan’s history with unsafe drinking water prompted his interest. “… defending communities that I come from. Not just those that look like me, but literally communities that I grew up in.”
NRDC is an international non-profit environmental advocacy group which has played an important role in tackling the water crisis, he explained. The Safe Water Initiative is a program of NRDC which focuses on two goals. The first is to get lead out of the water nationwide within 10 years. The second is to secure drinking water as a safe, affordable human right. As an attorney at the NRDC, Orr litigates to ensure that lead and copper protection policies are upheld.
Orr began with a timeline of the legal side of the water crisis. In Jan. 2016, NRDC along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Concerned Pastors for Social Action and Flint resident and water activist Melissa Mays, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court (Eastern District, Southern Division) demanding that the City of Flint and the State of Michigan to provide Flint with safe water as soon as possible. As part of a preliminary injunction of the suit, the state was required to provide homes with free bottled water.
Ultimately the suit was settled out of court on a plan to replace Flint’s lead pipes. A budget of $97 million in federal and state funds was allocated to complete the project within three years.
In February, 2019, the NRDC went to court again to amend the agreement because, Orr stated, the plaintiffs were not satisfied with the efficiency of pipe replacement.
According to Orr, Flint was previously able to identify lead pipes before digging with an accuracy of about 70 percent using the so-called “predictive model.” The predictive model, developed by Eric Schwartz, from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor Business School, and Jacob Abernethy, from the UM – Ann Arbor department of electrical engineering and computer science, uses probabilities to give the likelihood that a specific area would have lead and/or galvanized service lines.
The higher the likelihood that a property has lead service lines, that is where pipe replacement crews were able to concentrate efforts first. The “predictive model” was abandoned by AECOM, the Los Angeles based contractor that oversaw the pipeline replacement starting in December, 2017 on a $5 million contract. Accuracy shot down to about 15 percent, with most of the pipes being excavated found to be copper not needing replacement.
The City changed its contractor to ROWE Engineering this year.
Orr said that as a result of the amended agreement, the City will go back to using the “predictive method” of lead pipe identification. Additionally, properties with a higher likelihood of lead contamination will be selected for pipe excavation first, and the City will be required to deliver monthly reports on the progress of excavation and use of funds.
Orr reported that as of March 2019, 21,000 service lines had been excavated of an estimated 28,000 total needing scrutiny. A list of about 4,500 homes with a high risk of lead piping is being developed. Those homes will be scheduled for line excavation this year, with the remainder of the city’s homes to follow.
Finally, $67 million has been spent of the $97 million secured for pipe replacement. This leaves $30 million which Orr said should be enough to finish the project in 2019.
Watch for a letter from Fast Start letter, residents advised
For those houses which still need their pipes checked or replaced, a FAST Start letter and opt-in form was mailed out by the City on April 23. Orr said residents should fill out the form and return it within 30 days to confirm that they would like their pipes checked or replaced.
According to Laura MacIntyre, a UM-Flint lecturer and Flint community liaison for NRDC, some residents have been mistaking the form for junk mail. For residents who have not received a form, she recommended double checking junk mail, in case some may have missed it. Orr said the City is still required to follow up in-person with those who do not return the form. Residents can also complete the opt-in form online at www.cityofflint.com/fast-start-online-opt-in-form.
Orr said the NRDC is now defending the State of Michigan against utility companies for the Michigan Lead and Copper Rule. In 2018, Michigan reformed its rule on Lead Action Level to be the strictest in the nation. Prior to the reform, drinking water could show a lead concentration of up to 15 parts per billion (ppb) before cities would be required to take action.
Now that the level has been lowered to 12 ppb, a number of utility companies across the state may be required to replace their pipes, as in Flint. According to Orr, those companies are suing the State of Michigan, arguing that the replacement will be too expensive, and that lowering the level to 12 ppb is not scientifically founded or health-based. The lower Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) will come into effect in June, and Orr said the NRDC will be defending the State to make sure the rule is upheld.
“Light Up the City” parties begin
The Michigan State Police are hosting Light Up The City, a monthly block party, running May to August for families to meet members of their communities and interact with local organizations. The first party will be May 30 at Brownell Elementary, 6302 Oxley Dr. There will be a neighborhood parade with a drumline, giveaways for kids, teeshirts, food, and more.
“Taste of Culture” offered May 11
Taste of Culture is a free “culture shock” event that will be held by Communities First, Inc. at the Masonic Temple, 755 Saginaw St. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday May 11. There will be food from 14 different cultures, dance groups, and music groups of Flint residents passionate about their heritage.
Cleanup urged during “Love Your City” month
Officials from Republic Services Waste Disposal are encouraging Flint residents to help clean up and beautify their neighborhoods during May, “Love Your City,” month.
Residents are allowed unlimited large item pickup, and can call (810) 410-1134 to schedule a pickup of three or more large items. A free tire disposal day will be May 18, where residents can drop off tires between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. at Environmental Rubber Recycling at 6515 Dort Hwy.
Additionally, Republic encourages planning public space cleanups. Free supplies including tools, gloves, and equipment are provided by Keep Genesee County Beautiful, and can be scheduled for use by calling (810) 767-9696 at least 10 days in advance.
EVM Staff Writer Luther Houle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. EVM Managing Editor Meghan Christian and EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson contributed to this report. Christian can be reached at email@example.com. Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.