Harold Harrington is a master plumber. Fixing people’s pipes is what he does. But it was something he found in his own home in Flint, Michigan that worried him.
“That came from my house,” says Harrington, holding a small piece of pipe in one hand. “That piece of galvanized was in my basement. It fed my upstairs faucet and that’s from my upstairs bathroom. … It’s full of lead.”
Harrington is among the tens of thousands of Flint residents whose contaminated drinking water is a focus of threat to communities across the United States.
Flint’s lead crisis began in 2014 when the city’s drinking water source was switched to save money. Water from the new spring was improperly treated and damaged old pipes that leached lead into drinking water.
Lead can damage the brain and kidneys. Of particular concern is the effect lead can have on young children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says exposure to lead can slow development in children under 7, leading to learning and behavioral problems.
President Biden has proposed a more than $ 2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan that includes billions to replace the country’s lead water pipes. When he announced his American employment plan in April, the president cited Flint’s problems as a cautionary story about the dangers of infrastructure decay.
“Everyone remembers what happened in Flint,” said Biden. “There are hundreds of Flints all over America.”
But Flint is also an example of how to fix the problem – and the many challenges along the way that could slow progress.
As of 2016, the City of Flint has inspected 26,819 utility lines and replaced 9,941 lead and galvanized pipes.
Harrington helped, and it wasn’t easy. At his local union office, Harrington keeps an old lead pipe that has been twisted like a pretzel after decades underground.
“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. They have tree roots that have grown over the last hundred years,” says Harrington.
Even determining whether the pipe in the ground is lead, copper, or a combination can be tricky. In many cities, old water department records are incomplete or out of date. And for decades, water utilities only replaced the pipes to the property line, creating utility lines that are a mix of lead, galvanized, and copper pipes that now need to be completely replaced.
“It’s a big project,” says Harrington, “and each of them is different.”
U.S. Representative Dan Kildee, D-Flint, has channeled federal funding for the past six years to mitigate the long-term effects of lead on his hometown neighbors. He says the crisis could have been averted if the nation had invested more in infrastructure in the past.
“If 10 years ago $ 15 or 20 million had been committed to modernizing the Flint water system and removing pipelines,” he says, “half a billion dollars could have been committed.” was avoided. “
The Flint water crisis brought the problem of old lead pipes to the national stage. However, public health advocates have warned for years that the country needs a comprehensive plan to replace lead pipes.
“The Biden plan is well overdue,” said Erik Olson, senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. According to Olson, lead and galvanized pipes continue to be a problem despite being banned in 1986.
“A lot of people think this is just a problem, like in Flint or some big, older cities,” says Olson. “But in fact, it’s spread across the country and it really is a huge public health threat.”
Nationwide, the number of lead and galvanized pipes to be replaced is estimated at 8 to 10 million. The Biden proposal is to spend $ 45 billion, or around $ 5,000, to replace each lead service line.
But the price could end up being much higher. The American Water Works Association, an industry group representing water utilities and manufacturers, puts the cost at over $ 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 senior service lines. In 2017, a federal judge approved a settlement under which the state of Michigan agreed to spend nearly $ 100 million to replace all of Flint’s conductive and galvanized service lines in three years. The pipe replacement program is two years behind schedule but is expected to be completed this year.
As the Biden government pushes to replicate Flint’s pipe-swapping experience, Overton fears that more affluent suburbs will infiltrate and deplete proposed federal funds and leave disadvantaged communities out. He wants money to go to color communities first.
“People in brown, black, African American, and Latin American communities … are going to have some downsides,” says Overton.
Is Replacing Pipes the Right Step?
Some wonder if lead service lines should be such a high priority. The lead pipe replacement accounts for nearly half of the $ 110 billion proposed by the Biden government to upgrade the country’s water infrastructure. However, according to some estimates, the U.S. will have to spend nearly $ 1 trillion to upgrade its entire drinking and sewage system from water treatment plants to distribution lines.
“A major investment was made in distribution systems after World War II,” said David LaFrance, CEO of the American Water Works Association. “These pipes are all growing up and must all be replaced.”
Others suggest that water systems can reduce the risk of aging pipes without undertaking the large, complex task of replacing millions of utility lines.
“There is an approach to corrosion protection that greatly limits and prevents lead leaching,” says Michael Shapiro, former water officer for the Environmental Protection Agency. He says this can be achieved by treating water with anti-corrosion chemicals. But he says, “Flint has shown to an extreme degree that this approach has limitations.”
Some cities are in no rush
Even with a federal initiative, there will likely be those who refuse to replace old service lines. And there is even a certain reluctance in Michigan, which has its own mandate to remove all senior service lines within the next two decades.
The small bedroom community of Mason was founded in southern Michigan in the mid-19th century. Some of the estimated 1,400 lead service lines date from this time.
On an unusually warm April morning, Mayor Russ Whipple sits in his back yard, listening to birds singing. He says Mason slowly replaced old pipes during routine road works. He resists the state mandate and insists that there is no need to rush it.
“Our lead almost never reaches the threshold,” he says. “When it does, it hardly does. And we usually find that it was because of a bad test.”
Despite his reservations, Whipple says if federal funding becomes available, his community will likely file a motion to avoid passing the cost of replacing pipes on to the small town’s water customers.
Just a hop, skip and a jump from Mason, in Lansing, the state capital, the city’s water company has already replaced all of the leading utility lines. But it took 12 years – and a little arm wrestling.
Dick Peffley is the general manager of the Lansing Board of Water and Light. He says most Lansing residents willingly allow utility workers into their homes and allow them to dig their lawns to replace the pipes. But some didn’t. To get these reluctant homeowners to open their doors, the utility had to use what Peffley describes as “hard love.”
“We just sent out a number of letters saying, ‘Listen, we need to have your lead service replaced for your own safety. We might be forced to turn off your water and we will turn it on when we get one set up new service. ” , ‘”he says.” This letter caught your attention. “
The City of Flint hopes to soon be among the communities that have replaced all of their senior service lines. Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley plans to inspect the last 500 service lines this summer. “It’s a journey,” he says, “and we’re ending this journey now.”