AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

“If we don’t take this opportunity, then we’ve failed a second time,” says Mayor Karen Weaver.

On an overcast Wednesday afternoon, Melissa Mays stands pointing her camera over her bathtub, filming the greyish-green water as it fills the basin. The water’s chemical stench makes her gag, but she holds steady.

As the leader of the advocacy group Water You Fighting For, Mays planned to use the video footage to show Michigan state officials the current quality of the water in Flint, Michigan. In recent weeks, Mays and scores of residents have complained of painful rashes that they believe are tied to bathing in the tap water. “They burn, they break open, they bleed,” Mays says. “Nothing makes it better. It’s just Flint water.”

Two years ago, state officials made the fatefully bad decision to switch the city’s water source to the corrosive Flint River, exposing thousands of people to toxic lead levels when old service lines were corroded. Now those lead levels are finally declining, four months after the city reconnected to the Detroit water system and began treating the water with phosphates, which are supposed to coat the old pipes with a protective film.

But small flakes of lead can still chip off from pipes, spiking lead levels in homes at random. So the water remains high-risk, undrinkable, and virtually impossible to trust for a city repeatedly misled about the safety of its water by government officials. According to many residents and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, the only way to “fix” Flint is to remove and replace every lead service line in the city—period.

“If we don’t take this opportunity to do the right thing, then we’ve failed a second time,” Weaver tells CityLab.

At a press conference Tuesday, Marc Edwards, the lauded Virginia Tech civil engineer who helped expose the city’s lead crisis last fall, said that while he thought that residents “should have no more concerns about taking a bath or shower at present than anyone in any other city,” he wouldn’t blame any of them for doubting it. Many residents have resorted to using bottled water to bathe, or to using showers at hotels or at the homes friends and family. Some, like Mays, have no choice but to shower in the tap water. And though Edwards has said that residents should be running the taps as much as possible in order to help the phosphates take effect, Mays is anxious about the chemicals that might expose her to.

“This is not a lab, this is a real city,” she says. “What they’re doing is not working. We need new pipes.”

Only 33 lead service lines have been replaced in Flint, four months after Weaver declared a state of emergency, and six months after she announced the “Fast Start” pipe replacement initiative, which aims to replace all 8,000 lead services lines citywide.

New pipes would obviously be instrumental in addressing Flint’s fundamental need: water that residents can trust. But the prospect of new pipes also represents a kind of re-set button for Flint’s economy. In a city where the poverty rate is nearly 40 percent, and nearly 10 percent of residents are unemployed, many view replacing corroded infrastructure as a means of economic development. Jobs can be created. Pockets can be filled. Businesses and services can be attracted.

“We need more plumbers and pipe providers, more school nurses and mental health providers,” Weaver says. “Getting local people employed in these projects is part of how we rebuild the city of Flint.”

Harold Harrington, the business manager of the local plumbers union, says that he has hundreds of plumbers on deck, just waiting to be called on to start replacing pipes. Depending on the scope of the replacements required, he says the union could expand a paid, five-year plumbing apprenticeship program that it sponsors. “If residents become apprentices, they can have a lasting career,” he says. “We’d love to train them in the trade. We don’t want to just hand them a shovel and say, ‘There.’” He adds that corroded water heaters are also going to require plumbing labor, and that connecting the city to an under-construction pipeline from Lake Huron might, too.

Weaver is starting to look into Harrington’s idea of an expanded plumbing apprenticeship program for young adults, and is working to put out bids to local contractors to complete future pipe replacements. She also sees potential in other, less obvious types of job opportunities that could pop up as a result of the crisis—recycling jobs to deal with millions of empty plastic water bottles,for example. With brand-new, citywide plumbing, she believes the city might eventually be able attract new businesses.

“We deserve something as a result of what’s happened,” Weaver says. “I think Flint can be on map for positive things.”

So what’s holding up the rebuilding process? It’s partly a result of poor data about where lead pipes are, and partly because of the challenges associated with replacing lead lines anywhere; the wrong technique can lead to even higher lead-in-water levels than before. By far, however, the biggest roadblock comes down to cash. Flint has received only $2 million in reimbursement funds from the state of Michigan, a drop in the $55 million funding bucket that Weaver estimates her initial replacement plan will require. Another $220 million in federal funds is stalling in Congress, and the Michigan legislature has yet to pass Governor Rick Snyder’s proposed $195 million supplemental appropriations package. And even of the federal and state funds that were promised months ago to address the crisis, very little money has actually made it to Flint.

The longer it takes for the city to get the money, the longer it takes to start taking the lead out of the ground. And the longer that takes, the more residents who can are leaving Flint, and the more distant vision of a city defined not by crisis becomes.

“The dream is still there for new infrastructure,” Mays says, “but… we’re tired of waiting. We have no pipes, and we have no jobs.”

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