Putting a price on fixing Flint, and cities like it
It could take much more than the $80 million in new federal aid that President Obama has promised Michigan by this week to remove lead contamination from Flint’s public water system, officials and local experts said.
What will ultimately be needed to fix the system isn’t fully known yet. But a chemical treatment regimen is expected to begin the process, and engineers highlighted a number of technical fixes, such as liners and coatings, in interviews with Crain’s.
The state Senate is expected this week to take up a state budget supplement for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, allocating $28 million to various immediate public health measures and some infrastructure. The House was quick to pass the new supplemental budget last week.
But that funding largely addresses needs like bottled water for nurses, filters and funding to hire more school nurses, with only a fraction earmarked for infrastructure. None of the funding is expected to solve the bigger problem of how to get lead out of the city’s sprawling network of pipes.
Obama last week told a gathering of mayors at the White House that a bipartisan budget agreement last month helps cities rebuild their water infrastructure and earmarks $80 million for Michigan.
Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget, said “no long-term infrastructure costs have been identified,” as of last week.
“We do know the replacement of the entire system would be very costly and take time,” Weiss said.
Officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality were not made available to Crain’s to discuss the lead problem, the city’s water infrastructure or the anti-corrosion methods being used.
A preliminary estimate in a September daily briefing to Snyder released along with some of his emails last week pegged the cost to replace lead service lines in the city at $60 million or more, but some Flint city leaders, including Mayor Karen Weaver, have estimated the bill could be as high as $1.5 billion.
That’s probably excessive. Local experts told Crain’s the lead problem doesn’t seem to affect the entire city equally — but the briefing estimate seems to address only the cost of replacing service lines that directly connect to homes and businesses in the city, not the mains or connectors that run for miles and might also hold lead elsewhere within the water system.
State leaders budgeted $500,000 just to study the city’s water infrastructure.
Another $2 million is proposed for “additional water system needs including new system infrastructure,” which Weiss said could pay for hook-up costs and final piping work to get the city connected with the Karegnondi Water Authority system under construction. City leaders and the state DEQ have been discussing how to spend the funds, he said.
But neither the interim reconnection to metro Detroit’s own Great Lakes Water Authority about two months ago, nor the Karegnondi connection later this year, can reverse the corrosion that’s already happened in water lines (and which caused lead from the lines to leach into the water in some homes) since the city separated itself from the Detroit system and began drawing water from the Flint River in April 2014, experts said. At best, the new sources can bring water with less corrosive agents, and keep things from getting worse.
Removing lead from the water will involve either dosing the water supply regularly with phosphates, as Flint began to do last month, or installing new liners inside corroded pipes to separate the flow from the corrosion itself.
The city expects the phosphates will coat the inner pipe walls and seams where corrosion has occurred, and take two to six months to begin lowering lead levels in city water.
Snyder has said publicly he is expecting phosphate coatings to help address the immediate problem, and a portion of the budget supplement going to the Senate further funds anti-corrosion measures. But the bill is intended only to address immediate concerns in Flint, said Snyder spokesman Dave Murray.
Experts said coating is an ongoing commitment, and in many places only all-new pipes will completely solve the problem. Liners can help, and in some cases are about half the cost of new pipes, but they have limitations.
“Six inches and up (pipe width) is the common application range for installing pipe liners. There’s some 4-inch technology that’s come to the fore, but when you’re talking that size, there’s still a cost issue and (water flow) capacity issue,” said Fred Tingberg Jr., business development manager of Lanzo Lining Services, one of the Roseville-based Lanzo Cos.
“And what about the pipe running up into the house? There’s no liner on the market that’s going to make its way up the street and into a home through that 3-quarter-inch line.”
The Sept. 28 briefing memo to Snyder estimates that Flint has about 32,900 service connections to its public water systems, of which 15,000 might be “considered lead service lines.” At $4,000 per home, they would cost $60 million to replace, although some home replacement costs can run as high as $8,000.
But the contamination might not be citywide, particularly since methods of laying and connecting pipes have changed dramatically over the past century in older cities like Detroit and Flint.
President Robert McMahan of Kettering University in Flint said in a letter to university parents and alumni last week that the university has tested water from six input lines to the campus 15 times in the last several months, and 12 of the tests detected no lead. In the three samples were lead was found, levels ranged from 1 part to 7 parts per billion — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency usually allows up to 15 parts per billion before seeking corrective action on lead.
“These were single point in time detections; later repeat testing of the same distribution points detected no lead,” McMahan states in the letter. “(And) no lead has ever been detected in any water source used for food preparation” at Kettering.
At issue in Flint is lead within water pipes and particularly lead packing or “solder and flux” in the joints or seams connecting pipe lines, which cities used in pipe installation since at least the early 20th century.
A 1986 amendment by Congress to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act prohibits all but “lead free” pipes, solder and flux in public water systems or private plumbing lines that supply water for human consumption. The rule requires public water systems to have 0.2 percent lead solder and flux or less, and contractors who spot lead joints or solder during pipe maintenance are also supposed to report and replace them. But this rule is unevenly enforced and doesn’t address repairs where no digging occurs and no packing is seen.
However, lead solder is usually external and coatings in the pipe interior and some naturally occurring mineral deposits within the lines keep the water out of contact with it — so long as the water itself isn’t too corrosive.
Aggressive anti-corrosion treatments at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department usually kept Flint and other communities with old infrastructure out of danger, until Flint separated from DWSD and began drawing water from the Flint River in 2014.
Local experts said the Flint River had more corrosive agents and wasn’t being treated as aggressively at first, until corrosion inside the pipes brought lead into the flow of water. Once that happened, virtually any pipes downstream from a leaching contamination point would be affected even if the other pipes contained no lead.
The damage could be contained and reversed by installing new liners inside some pipes, said Tingberg and Jim Baglier, owner of Macomb Township-based Superior Lining Services LLC, because the water would no longer be in contact with the corroded surfaces.
Local contractors like Lanzo, Inland Waters Pollution Control Inc. and Blaze Contracting Inc., all have held lining contracts with DWSD in the past, often in collaboration with St. Louis-based Insituform Technologies LLC.
But the traditional “bag liners” that generally get installed inside a pipe cannot effectively seal up joints, or splits and intersections of pipes — and the tools that unfurl them have difficulty passing through pipes less than 6 inches in diameter.
A more recent polymer spray-on liner can handle splits and joints or bends in water lines, and Baglier said his company has installed liners in 5-inch lines before. But the cost can vary drastically depending on how many connections a length of pipe has, where in the city is being installed or even the place where it’s used.
Baglier’s company finished installing liners at a site in Saginaw and another in Cleveland last year, but Baglier said his service is still more widely used in Canada than the U.S.
“In Flint, there are probably many points of opportunity, where this kind of lining technology could help. But in many cases, when the lines start going down to a certain size (cities) would just opt to replace them. It becomes a dollars-and-cents issue,” Baglier said. “And there’s probably more lead in the houses and the service lines entering them than some of these mains in the systems out there.”
The state budget supplement could reach the Senate by Tuesday. The measure also calls for spending:
- $36,500 for a year’s worth of anti-corrosion control, which includes adding phosphates to the water system to prevent lead from leaching from pipes.
- $2 million for replacement of plumbing fixtures, such as faucets and drinking fountains, in city schools, day care centers, adult foster care centers and nursing homes, hospitals and surgical centers — although that applies only to above-ground fixtures.
- $1.5 million for lead abatement at an extra 100 homes, with an estimated cost of $15,000 per home. Work could include removing lead from plumbing components, such as faucets, aerators or fixtures, short of replacing the entire home plumbing system, Weiss said.
- $90,000 for other residential lead investigations, particularly in homes of children with high levels of lead in their blood.
Flint is certainly not the only Michigan city to rely on lead pipes to carry drinking water. But the city’s crisis laid bare the challenges of replacing underground infrastructure that is aging or failing, both in terms of cost and complexity.
During his State of the State address last week, Snyder said he will create a commission to study Michigan’s infrastructure — water and sewer lines, roads and bridges and broadband Internet, among them. The commission will be expected to report recommended updates — and ways to pay for them — by September.
Snyder called the state’s old underground pipes “a hidden problem” that stays out of sight until the next power failure, flood or water issue.
“We need to invest more in smarter infrastructure so we avoid crises like this in the future,” Snyder said.
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