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Happy anniversary! Flint couple celebrates 25 years with new copper water pipe

Today marks one year since health officials in Genesee County warned people living in Flint to stop drinking their tap water.

The water is improving, but Flint’s water is still not safe to drink without a filter. But there are stories of hope on this not-so-pleasant anniversary.

This week, Flint residents Mike and Keri Webber also marked a big anniversary.

“It’s actually a great one, isn’t it babe?” Mike said, reaching for his wife’s hand.

“It is” Keri smiled back, “25 years.”

But the last year has been rough on a lot of Flint families.

Every member of the Webber family tested positive for lead. Even the dogs.

Keri’s 16-year old daughter had levels that were considered “elevated.” She says her daughter struggles with anxiety about the water.

“She’s been in counseling for over a year now,” Keri said.

“We’ve started seeing a counselor,” Mike says after a pause, “because of what this has all done to us and how it affects you; it affects not just your organs and your body, it does affect you emotionally and it affects your mind.”

Mike, was angry. Angry his blood pressure is out of control from the lead exposure. Angry a resulting eye stroke left him partially blind. Angry he couldn’t do anything about the high levels of lead in his tap water.

But this week, on the morning of their anniversary, the couple got a wonderful surprise.

“The best anniversary gift we could ask for”

They watched from the driveway as a four-man crew dug up mounds of dirt in front of the sidewalk. The crews came to replace the old pipe that brings water into the Webber’s home.

Their oldest daughter, Stephanie Webber, holds up her phone to record the action.

“It’s the biggest deal. I can’t, I mean, it means the world. It really, truly does,” Stephanie said.

After an hour of digging, the men find what they’re looking for. A crew member in a yellow vest climbs down into a 7-foot deep hole and uncovers the old pipe. It’s made of solid lead.

Lead pipes like these were severely corroded over the 18 months Flint used water from the Flint River. The water was not treated as it was supposed to be, and that meant lead from old pipes leached into people’s drinking water, exposing untold tens of thousands of Flint residents.

“With the struggles that my family’s been going through, you would think that the state would’ve put us right at the top of their priority,” Stephanie said.

But it was friends, not the government, who found donors to give money to replace the lead line. The lead portion is actually on the city-owned side of the Webber’s line. The service line on her private property is already copper. Property owners are typically not responsible for this section of the service line.

Lt. Governor Brian Calley tried to help the Webbers after overhearing Keri explain her family’s tough situation during Donald Trump’s visit to Flint last month.

On Monday, an “emergency crew” contracted through the city showed up in the morning to replace the city-owned lead line. But by then the anonymous donors had already paid a different company to do the work. Calley is out of the country and was not available to comment, a spokeswoman from his office said. But she did confirm Calley sent the emergency crew to the Webber's home.

More money for pipe replacement may be coming

So far the State of Michigan has given Flint $27 million to replace old lines. Brigadier General Mike McDaniel is coordinating the city program to do that.

“I wish the pace was a little quicker than it’s been,” McDaniel said.

As of this week, the government has replaced fewer than 200 pipes. When McDaniel started back in February, he wanted to have 10,000 lines replaced by now. He admits he’s an optimist.

“You have to be to have this job,” he said.

He says they’ve used several factors when deciding whose water lines get replaced. They’re looking at water test results and the year a home was built. They’re taking census data and considering whether a neighborhood has more young children, who are more vulnerable to the effects of lead exposure.

From the maps, the Webber’s home appears to be in a neighborhood slated for pipeline replacement, but not until at next year at the earliest.

Mike McDaniel points to highlighted areas in pink. Those neighborhoods are slated for replacement in phase three of the city's Fast Start program.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Mike McDaniel points to highlighted areas in pink. Those neighborhoods are slated for replacement in phase three of the city's Fast Start program.

Standing in front of a huge map of Flint neighborhoods, McDaniel points out neighborhoods he hopes to hit soon that are highlighted in purple and pink marker. 

“My greatest concern is the funding. I mean if you look at the pink, that’s what we think we can do with the $27 million. That’s not enough to do the entire city,” he said.

News came this week that there may be twice as many lead service lines in Flint as previously thought.  

This week leaders in Congress struck a deal that could send a $100 million or more to Flint. But the details won’t get hashed out until after the November election. 

At least the Webbers won’t have to wait that long.

Traditionally couples mark their 25th wedding anniversary with silver. But this year they’re thankful for the shiny, new copper pipe they hope will help make their water safe to drink again.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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