Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
But it won’t be easy.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver announced at a press conference Tuesday that the city will accelerate the replacement of all lead pipes in the city, first by working with local medical professionals and the Department of Health and Human Services to identify the most vulnerable populations.
"We are here today to take a stand to get the lead out of Flint," Weaver said. "To start, we must remove and replace lead pipes immediately, and we want to start with the high-risk homes of kids under 6 and pregnant women. ...These lead pipes have got to go."
Only a handful of pipes have been replaced so far in Flint, where an unprecedented disaster of lead-tainted water has been unspooling for nearly two years. In April 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager switched Flint’s water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the salt-filled Flint River. For reasons still unknown, no anti-corrosive agent was added, and the water burned through old pipes. It was 18 months before the city and state admitted that the water was undrinkable, and even longer to offer an apology.
Now, at least 9 are dead from a Legionnaire’s outbreak likely linked to the contaminated water, and thousands of children have been exposed to lead. And though Flint connected back to Detroit’s supply in October, and plans to link to a new pipeline from Lake Huron later this year, its lead pipes must be completely replaced if they are to safely convey any water over the long term.
In the past month, scads of dollars have poured into Flint, including $28 million from the state and $80 million from President Obama in infrastructure aid. But Weaver says that the city’s new initiative is separate from any assistance the state or federal government has given, and that she’ll be seeking a mixture of private and public funding to support it.
There is no set date for starting the replacement plans, and no set plan for relocating residents while streets are torn up to install new pipes. But Weaver said that Lansing, Flint’s neighbor to the west, will be providing some tips: The city’s Board of Water & Light has replaced some 13,500 lead lines with copper ones since 2004, streamlining the method in the process.
"They have perfected a method for replacing the lead service lines that's more than twice as fast and only half the cost," Weaver said. "No trench is required. The process takes four hours instead of 10 hours, at a cost of just $2,000 to $3,000 per line."
It’s a far cry from what Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was saying just a week ago: that the replacement of the city’s pipes was a long-term goal.
"A lot of work is being done to even understand where the lead service lines fully are," Snyder told reporters. "The short-term issue is about recoating the pipes [with chemicals], and that will be based on third-party experts saying the water is safe. ... It's a lot of work to take out pipes, to redo all the infrastructure."
It’s true that tearing up hundreds of miles of lead pipes—some, as Wired put it, buried as deep as dead bodies—won’t be easy, no matter the plan. As Snyder said, engineers and geologists are still working to get a firm grasp on where Flint’s old pipes actually lie, drawing on 30-year-old maps, handwritten notes, and on-the-ground fieldwork.
But when it comes to restoring safe, drinkable water to Flint, there are simply no excuses left for government officials at any level. Weaver recognizes that.
"This must happen immediately,” she said. “I am morally obligated to use every bit of power and authority my office has to make Flint's water safe and the city successful for the people who live and work here.”