Skip to main content

by Willy Blackmore reprinted from Word in Black.

Will the city’s water crisis finally be over when the last service line is replaced?

This story is part of “Flint’s Still Fighting,” Word In Black’s series about the decade-long water crisis, and the struggles and triumphs still transforming the majority-Black city.

Sometime soon, maybe even within the next few months, a trench will be dug across a lawn somewhere in Flint, Michigan, and a crew of city workers will haul a pipe up out of the ground. It’ll be made either of stainless steel or lead, just like the some 29,500 water service lines that the city has replaced over the last seven years.

It’ll not only be the last lead pipe on the block, but in the city too — the culmination of a $100 million project that began in 2017 when Flint reached a settlement with a group of plaintiffs who sued the city (and state officials) in the wake of the water crisis.

They’re going to try to say that it’s finished but it’s not — it’s not complete.  — ARTHUR WOODSON, FLINT ACTIVIST

While there is still other work the city is legally required to complete under the terms of the settlement, including cleaning up lawns and repairing sidewalks and curbs at thousands of homes that have already had their service lines replaced, that last lead pipe will still be a milestone moment for Flint.

While lead levels have been below the federal action threshold since 2019, there is no safe amount of the metal, a powerful neurotoxin, to consume. Officially, residents have been advised to drink bottled water until the service line replacement work is complete (and follow-up testing is conducted). With the lead out of the system, it’s conceivable that after a decade Flint could finally go back to normal.

But with the last lead service line likely to be removed more than four years behind schedule — not to mention the utterly unnecessary nature of the water crisis to begin with — it seems unlikely that much will change for residents after the work is completed.

“They’re going to try to say that it’s finished but it’s not — it’s not complete,” says Arthur Woodson, a local activist who has been organizing around the water crisis since it began. “If Jesus cleaned the water and sent it up here — if it was pure water — it would still be messed up because it’s the distribution system itself,” Woodson said.

Until 1982, when it was banned for use in potable water systems in the U.S., lead was the standard material used for pipes for millennia. As a soft, highly malleable metal that could be smelted at very low temperatures, it was an ideal material for plumbing — so much so that even the word, plumbing, is derived from plumbum, the Latin for lead, which is what pipes were made out of 5,000 years ago in ancient Rome.

Surprisingly little had changed by the time Flint was developing its public water system in the late 19th century. The first water company in the city was privately owned, and after Flint turned it into a public utility an ordinance was passed in 1897 mandating that “all connections with any water mains shall be made with lead pipe.”

If you run clear water through a sound lead pipe, there’s little concern of any contamination.

While there was a long period of history when the dangers of lead were not either not well understood or just wholly ignored (Romans also cooked in lead pots, and took advantage of its sweetness by using lead as a sugar substitute in both cooking and winemaking), cases of lead poisoning were documented as early as 2,500 BCE.

Part of what made lead plumbing a risk that society at large was for so long willing to take is that if you run clear water through a sound lead pipe, there’s little concern of any contamination. Even in Flint, the lead pipes were there all along, and while they did result in contamination at times, including one rather large spike prior to 2014, the water crisis forever changed the physical nature of the water system itself.

Not only was the raw water from the Flint River highly corrosive, but it also wasn’t treated with orthophosphate, a common additive that helps control corrosion in public water systems. As a result, the inside of some lead pipes were left looking like Swiss cheese. The interior surface was so pitted by the water — and that damage didn’t go away after non-corrosive and properly treated water was once again flowing through Flint plumbing.

When Lake Huron water was purchased from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department — as it was before 2014, and as it was once again after city administrators finally switched back to DWSD water the following fall — it was sent to Flint through a 72-inch concrete pipe. Within the city, the municipal water system consists of some 500 miles of plumbing, including large water mains made of cast iron or ductile steel that run beneath city streets. And then comes the final length that the water passes through before leaving to the public utility, the service lines that run between the water mains and a home or business.

The city’s records of the water system consisted of 45,000 index cards and a filing cabinet full of hand-drawn maps.

It’s this last leg where the problem lies, both for the water crisis and the service line replacement program. Because while the city once mandated that every connection to a water main be made with lead, both best practices and regulations changed over the years as Flint was developed and grew and then contracted in population too, leaving a water system circa 2016 that had a hodgepodge of materials used for service lines. Some were lead, some were galvanized steel (which would also be replaced under the settlement agreement; the pocked interior surface of the corroded metal can harbor lead particles), while others were made of copper, which is now considered state-of-the-art.

That’s why getting the lead out has been a two-step process: check and, if necessary, replace. The city’s records of the water system consisted of 45,000 index cards and a filing cabinet full of hand-drawn maps, many of which had important details, like the pipe materials used, written in pencil that is often smeared.

Until you get every lead line checked and replaced it’s not done. — TONYA BURNS, FLINT CITY COUNCIL MEMBER

Between digitizing city records and utilizing a few different predictive models developed for Flint by data scientists, crews were able to find many of the lead and steel lines. At times there were a dozen pipes being excavated weekly, and by June 2020, the city estimated that 90% of the work had been completed — but in the four years since, work has nearly ground to a halt (and truly did for the better part of two years at the beginning of the pandemic).

Now, it seems that getting a service line checked and replaced can only be accomplished through sheer force of will.

“I have people living a year ago who had 22 parts per billion of lead, well over the safe level,” says Tonya Burns, who represents Flint’s sixth ward on the city council. “It was literally a fight to get lead lines changed, to get them excavated. It shouldn’t be that way.”

And yet it continues to be: another of her constituents has been pushing to get his line checked, but the city claims he never gave permission to access his property. Despite having a paper trail showing that he did provide the necessary consent, according to Burns, he was moved from the very short list of 30-some homes that remain to be excavated. Burns estimates there are as many as 900 addresses that need to be checked, while the Natural Resources Defense Council was told by the state that it’s 275 addresses. Whatever the correct number, the city says they don’t have access to these addresses — or homeowners declined access.

“Until you get every lead line checked and replaced, it’s not done. The water didn’t skip 121 Main and go to 124 Main,” Burns says. “Will it ever be completed? I don’t know how, I don’t see it. I don’t have confidence when we’re still finding errors.”

There’s the question of money too: only $1.5 million remains for the service-line replacement program, and Flint itself is so cash-strapped as a city that its general fund won’t even cover its basic services for 2024. If the program money runs out before the last lead pipe is dug up, there are no funds that the city can tap into to pay for excavations.

With the restoration work that is also required to be done under the settlement agreement, however, it seems unlikely that the $1.5 million will be able to cover everything that needs to be done. After service lines are dug up and replaced, the settlement requires the city to complete any necessary paving and landscaping work to return curbs, sidewalks, and yards back to the way they were. But that has not happened in a timely manner in many instances: there are thousands of homes that still need restoration work done, including some that have been left for a year or longer with torn-up lawns and other neglected repairs, only adding to Flint’s problems with blight.

I wanted my yard and my driveway back the way it was. — MICHELE YOUNG

It was just last fall when Michele Young was finally able to get her line checked (but not replaced; it was copper). A Flint resident more on than off for over 50 years, Young works as a manager and, as she puts it, is telling other people what to do “all day, every day.” After years of emailing the city about her service line, she had an opportunity to do the same thing about her home and her water.

Last spring, she saw a crew working on pipes down the street and decided to walk over and talk to them. “I told them, ‘I want your boss to call me.’ So their boss called me, and I was able to get him to commit to doing my yard before the winter happened last year.”

But it wasn’t quite as simple finding the right guy and calling him once — Young had to call repeatedly over the summer, but as she says, “Once I get a hold of something, I’m goin’ to hold on to it.”

“I told him, if he did it, I did not expect to go all winter with my driveway torn up,” she says. “I wanted my yard and my driveway back the way it was. I don’t play, I don’t play that way. I said, look at my yard, it’s nice — I want my yard to remain that way.”

Her copper line was reburied and her yard and driveway fixed up about two weeks before the year’s first snow. She also managed to get another yard on her street restored too after repeatedly hassling everyone she could think of. But Young is the first to say that her approach isn’t any kind of solution writ large.

“I don’t think they would do that for everybody,” she says, “I just think that I was such a headache that they just said, let’s just get this lady out of the way because she’s going to keep pushing on us to do our job — and I was.”

Knowing that her line is copper gives Young some comfort, but she’s still angry. What about the water heater she had to replace well before its expected lifetime, which had Flint River water running through it for so long?

If you’re not capable of managing a crisis you should not be in the position. — MICHELE YOUNG

When the local General Motors factory was briefly using the water in 2014, it was so damaging to equipment that the company had to quickly find a new, non-corrosive source. Or there’s the possibility that there is lead plumbing or fixtures in her house, too. Replacing every last service line should be a start, not an ending. “You should be brought back to where you were before someone decided to poison our city,” she says.

For some residents, it’s all been too much — the crisis, its long fallout, the endless delays to getting the most basic, necessary fixes. In the past 10 years, more than 20,000 people have left altogether. But not Young. “Why should I have to go because we have inadequate management of our city?” she says when asked about the prospect of leaving Flint.

“That person needs to go,” she says, referring to Flint’s Mayor, Sheldon Neely. “If you’re not capable of managing a crisis, you should not be in the position.” And so Michele Young will stay, with her yard still looking just as nice, and with no plans to ever stop drinking bottled water.