5 months later in Flint, high lead levels remain
It’s been five months since the state of Michigan relented and switched Flint’s drinking water source back to the Great Lakes, after a disastrous trial using the Flint River.
Five months, and residents still can’t drink what comes out of their taps.
And not just out of an abundance of caution.
Not a single lead service line has been replaced in Flint, until now.
Despite testing that shows that water lead levels have dropped in many Flint homes, there are still more than 600 homes where the water tested well above the EPA’s action level for lead.
Homes like that of Fortina Harris. Harris has trained his two young grandsons never to touch the water.
“You can’t trust the government. Their trust gone down the Flint River,” said Harris, reviewing his water test results.
Here’s the problem: When the state switched the city’s water supply to the Flint River, it did not properly treat the water, and the water corroded the pipes, leaching lead and heavy metal into the drinking water supply.
Even though the water switched back, the pipes are damaged, and lead-tainted water, which can stunt childhood development and affect nearly every part of the body, is still coming out of taps in some areas.
In January when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tested Harris’ home, results showed he had more than 600 parts per billion lead in his water. The EPA says anything over 15 ppb is considered unsafe.
Then in February, Harris’ water was tested again, this time showing more than 400 ppb.
He has a bag next to his front door that is filled with empty water bottles, and a bucket in his tub, where the kids stand so they can bathe without touching the toxic water that Harris says once gave them rashes on their faces.
Harris shakes his head.
And this isn’t even the worst case, according to the county health department.
Rosemary Vernon, another Flint resident, had her water tested February 6 at more than 10,000 ppb.
“Oh my god, I was just stunned,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that.”
Levels that high are twice the threshold the EPA considers toxic waste.
The test results reinforce the belief among residents that the water — no matter what government officials say — will not be safe until the lead service lines are replaced.
“As soon as I see them digging out in my front yard and laying pipe and I go out there and watch and see what they do, then I’ll believe them,” Vernon said.
Flint’s Mayor Karen Weaver has asked for $55 million to begin replacing about 8,000 lead service lines that she believes exist in Flint.
Part of the problem is that no one really knows how many homes — or which homes — have them. Record-keeping in Flint was so poor, officials are unsure.
The state of Michigan — which failed to properly treat the Flint River water and then misled the public for months about its safety — has pledged $58 million to Flint. But none of that is for the replacement of lead service lines. The governor proposed $25 million for infrastructure in his budget proposal, but that money wouldn’t likely be available until October.
In the meantime, the governor’s office says they are studying the issue — going house to house to physically inspect and see where the lead lines exist.
“And I’m saying we don’t have time to study and get more information because every single day we’re testing the water and we’re getting results back,” Flint’s Mayor Weaver said.
Weaver says she’s using $2 million — a reimbursement from the state when the water was switched back — and guidance from a neighboring city, Lansing, Michigan.
Fifty miles to the west, Lansing has a similar demographic to Flint, and has become a national model for proactive lead pipe replacement.
About 15 years ago, a Washington Post investigation named Lansing as one of several American cities at the time that were cheating on lead in water testing. Although they denied cheating they began a program of replacing the lead pipes after Virgil Bernero became mayor in 2005.
“For whatever reason, there has been sort of a conspiracy of silence when it comes to lead pipes,” said Bernero.
As a state lawmaker, Bernero urged Flint to build lead pipe replacement into its budget.
It took “over 10 years, about $42 million and we think it’s money well spent,” said Bernero, who later ran for governor and lost to Rick Snyder.
Bernero and Weaver came up with an ambitious plan: 30 crews on the ground in Flint, hoping to replace most of its lead service lines within a year.
But it will take money. Flint’s utility department currently has a staff of only 20.
Weaver says she feels like partnering with Lansing to replace the service lines as soon as possible is the only option.
“There’s that psychological association that we can’t get around, and in order for us to build trust back in the government, and trust back in the water, we’ve got to have new pipes,” she said.