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Flint looks to Lansing for lessons in lead service line replacement

Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, says she doesn’t want to waste any time getting rid of the city’s old lead service lines.

It’s those lines – which bring water from the main to Flint houses – that have caused so much trouble in the city. Flint did not treat the water from the Flint River properly. That meant it ate away at those pipes and contaminated the water in many homes with lead.

Lessons from Lansing

Lansing launched one of the nation’s most ambitious lead-line replacement programs about a dozen years ago.

That city has some lessons for Flint.

Credit Lindsey Scullen/Michigan Radio
Dick Peffley, general manager of the Lansing Board of Water and Light.

Since it started the work in 2004, Lansing has taken out more than 13,000 lead service lines.

Dick Peffley is the general manager of the Lansing Board of Water and Light. He says when they started the replacement process around 12 years ago, the procedure looked different than it does today.

“When we used to do this, when we started out, you would take a backhoe and dig a hole in the center of the road — or where the water main is — and then trench all the way to the customer’s basement,” he says.

That process took “a lot of work," Peffley says.

“There was a lot of restoration because you had to go through the sidewalk and the curb, and some of the landscaping,” he says. “And so early on we decided that was going to be very expensive and a slow process – it took about eight to nine hours to do one house.”

So they retooled their process.

Peffley stands outside a house on the east side of the city, where a jackhammer is punching a hole in the street.  

Credit Lindsey Scullen/Michigan Radio
A crew member continues to dig toward one of Lansing's lead service lines.

They’ll also dig a hole where the shut-off valve is. Then they’ll go into the house, take out the water meter, and snake a cable through the old lead line.

“And then a backhoe out here grabs that cable and pulls it backwards, and as it does that, it’s pulling the lead service out from under the ground and a new copper service in, and then we just have to hook it up to the water main and put a water meter back in,” Peffley says. “So it’s that simple. Takes, on a good day, four hours. Today probably isn’t a good day — 16 degrees out,” he laughs.

This approach helped Lansing cut the time and the cost of replacing those lines by at least half.

And that’s important for Flint.

City officials think they’ll need to replace about 15,000 lines, and they want to do it in a year.

And that is where Lansing and Flint are very different.

Flint's "Fast Start"

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero says Lansing had ample time to replace lead lines.

Credit Lindsey Scullen/Michigan Radio
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

“In Flint, they don’t have the luxury of time,” Bernero says. “They have a crisis. They have a real crisis, and they have a crisis in confidence. And the crisis in confidence leads to a continued crisis in the economy. It’s as though a neutron bomb went off in Flint.”

Lansing could take its time replacing lead lines, because the water was otherwise pretty safe.

That’s not the case in Flint. So last week, the mayor there, Karen Weaver, announced a plan called “Fast Start.”

She wants to get started immediately. But there’s a lot that’s unknown about Flint’s lead service lines, and they’re not minor details. The city doesn’t really know how many lead lines there are. Or where they are.

An infrastructure study is expected to get under way soon to figure those things out.

But in the meantime, Weaver says they’ll start work on high-risk households first. That includes homes with kids under six, children with elevated lead levels, and pregnant women.

“And we have enough money to go ahead and get started with that,” Weaver says. “We’re waiting for some more. But we won’t wait on that.”

Governor Snyder has asked the Legislature to approve $25 million for lead service line replacement. Weaver says the city needs more than twice that to do the work.

But for now, don't drink unfiltered water in Flint

Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards is working with Flint on the lead crisis. He says no one in the city should be drinking unfiltered tap water.

"So until further notice, it doesn't matter what your test result says — no one should be drinking Flint water." — Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech

“No one should be thinking about it,” Edwards says. “Even if you got a test result from the city that said zero, that doesn’t mean the next glass of water you have is not going to have very high lead in it.”

That’s because the water system is so compromised that lead flakes could come out of people’s taps basically anywhere, at any time.

“So until further notice, it doesn’t matter what your test result says — no one should be drinking Flint water,” he says. “They should be using the bottled water or filters.”

Edwards says he suspects Flint’s one-year timeframe for getting all its lead lines replaced is probably optimistic. But he says Lansing has done it right – and he’s glad to see Flint following that city’s lead.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
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