Infrastructure is a growing source of concern, whether pertaining to roadways or water and wastewater systems. Flint, Mich., became a visual example of the U.S.’s failing infrastructure last year, when it was forced to deal with a major water crisis and lead leaching into local businesses and the homes of residents. However, the city’s government and residents have shown resilience in the face of the challenge.
During a presentation at the Michigan Municipal League’s annual Capital Conference in March, Mayor Karen Weaver pointed out Flint’s water crisis could have happened in any city in the U.S.
“I’m always saying that I’m sorry that we — that Flint is the example, but please, please learn from us because if you don’t, you’ve failed your city.” When it comes to crumbling infrastructure, she added, “We can’t let the issue go away. We’ve got to keep (infrastructure) in the spotlight.”
A Flint native, Weaver became the mayor in November. She has made addressing the city’s pipes the first of two major tasks she wants to accomplish; the second is securing financial and other resources needed by Flint’s citizens and businesses to recover.
Despite the city’s water supply having returned to Detroit’s water system, lead remains a problem. Weaver noted during her presentation some residents still can’t drink or cook with their water. For that reason, she has pushed to launch the city’s Fast Start program.
They have to go
“The Fast Start initiative is to replace every lead and lead-tainted service line in Flint. And we’re now finding that galvanized pipes are a problem,” explained Weaver. “We’re still working to figure out where lead solder and other types of materials may be creating issues for us.”
The city, together with the Lansing Board of Water and Light — with strong support from Lansing, Mich., Mayor Virgil Bernero — have been training work crews on how to quickly and less expensively replace lead-tainted service lines with copper ones. The initial phase of the pipe replacement program was paid for through a $500,000 contract the state of Michigan entered into with Rowe Professional Services Co., headquartered in Flint.
Since Weaver’s plan launched in March, lead-tainted service lines have been replaced in 33 homes — meeting the goal for that time span. “We want to ramp that up though, because our goal is to replace 15,000 pipes within the year, at a cost of $55 million,” she stated.
Currently the city is preparing requests for proposals. Once complete, local contractors can bid on the work to replace pipes at another 400 homes, which will be paid for with $2 million the state reimbursed Flint for what the city paid to reconnect to the Detroit drinking water system in the fall.
The city is also still waiting for state and federal lawmakers to enact legislation that would cover the $55 million cost of the Fast Start plan. Should the bills pass they would lower the per-home cost to replace the pipes, since contractors would be bidding on $55 million worth of work, rather than $2 million.
Kristin Moore, public relations director with the city, noted, “By refusing to appropriate the full $55 million, it’s impossible to get the best deal for taxpayers. But since state and federal lawmakers still haven’t passed (the bills), Mayor Weaver must work with the money she has so far to move the Fast Start pipe replacement plan forward toward its goal of getting the lead out of Flint. That’s what she is trying to do.”
Weaver noted the $55 million would not include the city’s damaged water infrastructure, which Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said could cost $700 million or more to replace or repair. For that, additional funding sources will be needed.
Flushing out the lead
In addition to replacing pipes to get the lead out, Flint worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Michigan to encourage residents and businesses to flush the water in their homes for a total of 10 minutes a day. This helped remove lead particles and coat the pipes with orthophosphate.
The “Flush your pipes for Flint” campaign launched in May and consisted of a 30-second television ad and 60-second radio ad that urged residents to “Take a Turn” to improve the city’s lead-tainted pipes by running their bathtub and kitchen faucets every day for two weeks, starting May 13.
While the long-term goal is to remove the lead, flushing, Weaver said during a news conference, is “an important intermediate step” since it helps reduce the lead levels in Flint’s water. Additionally, Snyder announced the state would pay for water used by Flint residents during the month of May to encourage them to participate in the flushing effort.
The city also made it clear to residents during the promotion of “Flush your pipes for Flint” it remains dedicated to the removal of lead-tainted service lines.
Making the most out of a bad situation
While the water crisis will have long-lasting impacts on Flint, the city is trying to bring something positive out of the situation — namely the Flint WaterWorks program.
The program officially launched March 6 with a host of community partners and Chelsea Clinton on hand. It will provide employment for Flint youth between the ages of 16–24, who will distribute clean water and healthy food and nutrition information, and provide assistance as Flint restores residential services. Flint WaterWorks was inspired by and developed in partnership with Hillary Clinton, whose team helped Weaver as she worked to establish the public- private partnership.
“I am so pleased to begin the Flint Water- Works pilot project this month and to give Flint teens and young adults an opportunity to gain work experience and skills training while making life better for Flint’s residents,” the mayor said during the launch. “People in Flint have had to rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing for far too long while dealing with the city’s lead-tainted water, and we must help them get their damaged pipes replaced and provide the water, healthy food and nutrition information they need.”
WaterWorks will also be tied into Weaver’s Fast Start initiative. “We’re going to be working with Michigan Works program. These young people will also be in an apprenticeship program, if they so choose, where they are going to be paired with plumbers and pipe fitters and will learn a skill,” she said, adding hopefully the youths will choose to stay in Flint with their skills. If they don’t, they will be contributing members of any community to which they move.
“The people in Flint are not giving up on our city; we are not giving up,” Weaver asserted during the Capital Conference. “Before this water crisis struck, Flint was starting to see new restaurants, growing entrepreneurship and a growing faith in the future. That is something we are going to keep going. We’ve got to. It’s not something I’m doing by myself. I’m doing it because I have a strong city council behind me and we are working together. Even though we don’t have all of our powers, you see how powerful we can be when we are together. I’m determine to put us back on the road to recovery, because for me Flint has always been home.”