Part of President Biden’s infrastructure proposal is to replace all of the country’s lead water pipelines. The Flint, Michigan experience shows both the need for it and the challenge.
NOEL KING, HOST:
President Biden plans to spend more than $ 2 trillion on U.S. infrastructure. This includes the replacement of all lead pipes that connect the houses with the city water pipes.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Everyone remembers what happened in Flint. There are hundreds of flints all over America.
KING: He’s talking about Flint, of course, me. However, this won’t be an easy process. This is Steve Carmody from Michigan Radio.
STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: Harold Harrington, who lives in Flint, is a master plumber. Right now he’s digging in his toolbox.
HAROLD HARRINGTON: That piece of galvanized was in my basement. It fed my faucet upstairs. And that’s from my upstairs bathroom. OK? It’s full of lead.
CARMODY: Flint’s lead crisis began in 2014 when the city’s drinking water source was switched to save money. The new water source was improperly treated, which damaged old pipes that leached lead into the drinking water. To fix the problem, Flint replaced lead and galvanized tubing with new copper tubing. Harrington helped with this and says it is not easy. For example, they are not always straight. Harrington holds up an old lead pipe twisted like a pretzel.
HARRINGTON: They’re not going to dig a hole just because they’ve been there longer than the gas lines, the cable lines, the fiber optic lines. You have tree roots that have grown over the past hundred years. You have sidewalks, streets. It’s a big project and each of them is different.
KARMODY: Even if it can be determined whether the pipe in the ground is all lead, copper, or a combination, it can be difficult. Old water department records may be incomplete or out of date. And for decades, the water suppliers only replaced the pipes to the property line and created Franconian pipes (ph) with a mixture of lead, galvanized and copper, which now have to be completely replaced.
Since 2016, the City of Flint has inspected more than 26,000 service lines and replaced nearly 10,000 lead and galvanized pipes. Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee has spent the past six years using federal funds to mitigate the leader’s long-term health effects on his hometown neighbors.
DAN KILDEE: If 10 years ago $ 15 or 20 million had been allocated to modernize the Flint water system and remove pipelines, the $ half billion already committed could possibly have been avoided.
ERIK OLSON: The Biden Plan is long overdue.
CARMODY: This is Erik Olson from the Natural Resources Defense Council. According to Olson, lead and galvanized tubing continue to be a problem despite the 1986 ban.
OLSON: A lot of people think this is just a problem, for example in Flint or some big older cities. In fact, it’s spread across the country. And it really is a major public health threat.
KARMODY: Lead can damage the brain and kidneys. One particular problem is the effect lead can have on young children. Lead exposure can slow development in children under the age of 7 and lead to learning and behavioral problems. Nationwide, the number of lead and galvanized pipes to be replaced is estimated at eight to 10 million. The Biden proposal calls for $ 45 billion in spending, but it could be more expensive. The American Water Works Association estimates the cost could exceed $ 60 billion.
That concerns Allen Overton. He is the pastor of Flint’s Christ Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. Overton joined others suing to get the city to replace all of its leading service lines. Now he fears that disadvantaged communities could lose if more affluent suburbs storm in and exhaust the federal funding proposed by the Biden government.
ALLEN OVERTON: People in Brown, Black African American, and Latin American communities that we know are going to have some downsides anyway, let’s start there.
CARMODY: Others wonder if replacing lead service lines should be such a high priority. The replacement of lead pipes accounts for nearly half of the budget proposed by the Biden government to upgrade the country’s water systems. But by some estimates, the US has to spend almost nine times as much. David LaFrance of the American Water Works Association says it has been too long since the last major update on the country’s drinking and wastewater infrastructure.
DAVID LAFRANCE: After the Second World War, a large investment was made in distribution systems. These pipes all grow up and all need to be replaced. We are there today.
CARMODY: But even with federal support, there will likely be those who refuse to replace old service lines. There is even some reluctance in Michigan, which has its own mandate to remove all senior service lines within the next two decades. In the small town of Mason, some of the city’s estimated 1,400 power lines date back to the 19th century. Mayor Russ Whipple says Mason was already slowly replacing old pipes during routine road works and insisting there was no need to speed them up.
RUSS WHIPPLE: Our lead almost never reaches the threshold. If it does, it hardly does. And usually we find that the reason for this is because of a bad test.
CARMODY: Despite his reservations, Whipple says if federal funding becomes available, his community will likely apply.
Just a stone’s throw from Mason in Lansing, the state capital, the city’s water company has already replaced all of the leading utility lines. But it wasn’t easy and it took 12 years. Dick Peffley is the general manager of the Lansing Board of Water & Light. He says most Lansing residents are willingly willing to let supply crews into their homes and dig up their lawns to replace the pipes. But some didn’t. And Peffley says the utility had to use what he describes as hard love.
DICK PEFFLEY: We just finally sent out a number of letters – you said, listen, we need to have your lead service replaced for your own safety. And you know we might be forced to turn your water off and we will turn it on when we offer a new service. This letter caught the eye.
CARMODY: The City of Flint hopes to soon be among the communities that have completely replaced all of their senior service lines. Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley plans to inspect the last 500 service lines this summer.
SHELDON NEELEY: It’s a journey, and we’re ending that journey now.
CARMODY: It’s a trip that many American cities need help with.
For NPR News, I’m Steve Carmody in Flint, Me.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE “PERSONALITY HALL” OF WATER)
NPR transcripts are quickly created by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, using a proprietary transcription engine developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR programming is the audio recording.