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Flint now knows where 4,000 lead service lines are, but records for 11,000+ homes missing

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Flint’s mayor and others want to replace all the lead service lines in the city. Besides the cost, there’s been one huge hurdle: Flint doesn’t know where its lead service lines are.

Until now, those records have lived on 3-by-5 index cards, old maps, and in the minds of Flint water department employees.

Experts at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus spent the past few weeks poring over those records and putting them into a much more useful, digital database. They’ve finished their work and handed the new database to city leaders.

Researchers at the University of Michigan Flint campus have taken Flint’s old records and digitized them.

Marty Kaufman, a U of M Flint professor who chairs the school’s Department of Earth and Resource Science, has helped lead the effort.

He says we know now, for instance, that there are at least 4,300 water service lines made at least partially of lead. Plus, now we know what we don’t know: that there are at least 11,000 homes in Flint with water service lines that are still a mystery.

Here’s how Kaufman breaks down the numbers:

  • 56,254 total parcels in the city of Flint
  • 25,974 parcels with copper service lines
  • 13,179 “unknown” type of service lines
  • Roughly 13,000 galvanized or “other” service lines
  • 4,376 parcels with a lead section in the service line (118 of these are completely made of lead)

The 13,179 parcels with an “unknown” type of service line include a bunch of very large and very tiny parcels. Kaufman’s team figures these parcels are “typically places where no residence would exist.” When those are eliminated, Kaufman estimates there are 11,196 residential property parcels with unknown service line connections.
Figuring out which homes in Flint have lead service lines is vital to resolving the Flint water crisis. Researchers need to test the water in those homes to see when the lead in water risk has declined.

In an interview on Michigan Radio’s Stateside last week, Kaufman said officials should be able to figure out what a home’s water line is made of without digging up the pipe.

“That’s a fairly simple test but it should be done by a professional,” he said.

Using a magnet, these professionals should be able to go into a person’s home, find part of the service line, and run a brief test on it.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency say that test can be helpful in showing what type of material the line is made of coming into a person’s home. But, they say that material may not be consistent all the way out to the water main. That’s because a homeowner technically owns the water service line from a city’s easement in front of their home to the house, but not from the easement to the water main. Partial water service line replacements are not entirely uncommon.  

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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