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Flint returning to Detroit water, but problems persist

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Flint is going back to Detroit water.   

The state, the city and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation together are kicking in $12 million to shut off the tap to the Flint River.

A year and a half ago, city leaders stood in Flint's water plant and raised plastic glasses to toast the city’s switch to the Flint River.

Eighteen months later, Governor Snyder has announced the end of the Flint River experiment.

“I’m in full support of a return to the Great Lakes Water Authority (formerly the DWSD),” Snyder told a mid-morning news conference in Flint, “and that we do this in a prompt and efficient fashion.”

It may only take a few weeks to bring to an end what has become a failed experiment.

Since shutting off the pipeline from Detroit and tapping the Flint River for the city’s drinking water, Flint residents have endured a progressively nightmarish existence every time they filled a glass from their kitchen faucet.

The cloudy water smelled and tasted bad.  Then there were E. coli outbreaks. The heavy chlorination in response to those outbreaks left people with burned skin and hair falling out in clumps.

A disinfectant by-product landed the city in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act for a year.

And then there’s lead.

A Virginia Tech research team found ‘serious’ levels of lead in the tap water in a significant percentage of Flint homes.  Other tests showed blood lead levels in Flint children have doubled since the switch.

New tests of drinking water in 13 Flint schools show 4 schools with seriously high lead levels.  At one school, Freeman Elementary on the city’s south side, the water tested at more than 100 parts per billion. That's more than six times the federal action level for lead.  

“We are suggesting we have specialized staff go in and really track who has elevated blood levels,” says Nick Lyon, the director of the Department of Health and Human Services, “You don’t know the facts until you know the facts.  So we’re going to test these children.”

Pastor Allen Overton has been a leader in the grassroots movement to return Flint to Detroit water. He listened as the governor and other officials talked about the steps being taken to quickly get Detroit water flowing to Flint again.  

Overton blames Flint’s mayor and other city leaders for not asking the governor for help sooner.

“If they had (brought) it to the governor before now I think he would have moved before now,” says Overton, “But they were slow about getting it to the governor. So that’s why I think it took so long to get to this point.”

The head of Flint’s public works department says it will take about two weeks to re-connect with Detroit's system.

But that doesn’t end Flint’s water woes.

The highly corrosive Flint River water has caused, by some estimates, tens of millions of dollars in damage to older lead and iron pipes in Flint.   Lead will continue to leach into the water even after the switch to a less corrosive water source.   Then there are the long-term health effects on children who have been drinking water with high levels of lead for more than a year.  

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling says the city will need help repairing and replacing the city’s aging and decaying water infrastructure.

He suggests other cities should pay attention to what’s been happening in Flint.

“There are important lessons from Flint’s experience,” says Walling, “We need to take a look at federal and state policy reforms, that include expanding water safety sampling to include our most vulnerable families.”

“We need to look at factors of affordability in public health and infrastructure all being assessed together,” Flint’s mayor adds.

The governor says he’s asking the Michigan legislature for half the expected 12 million dollar cost of getting Flint hooked back up to Detroit water. That's until next year, when a new pipeline from Lake Huron is expected to be ready.   The Mott Foundation is kicking in four million dollars and the city will come up with two million dollars.

This experiment that was supposed to save millions of dollars will most certainly will end up costing the city and the state dearly. 

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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