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Bridge Michigan
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Why Flint’s lead pipe replacement costs so much, and moves so slowly

FLINT – Pity the Ida Avenue resident who wanted, or needed, to sleep late today. The sun was barely out of bed when the excavator started piledriving into the asphalt in front of 1410, breaking it up in preparation for a morning of digging.

On this morning, it was 1410’s turn to get a new water service line. The crews have been out for a while in this neighborhood on the southwest side of Flint, replacing the infamously damaged lead pipes of the city’s aging infrastructure, the source of its now years-long water crisis.

The process started slowly in February, but is beginning to pick up speed under the oversight of Michael McDaniel, the retired Michigan National Guard brigadier general appointed to oversee Flint’s FAST Start program, dedicated to this very chore.

Homeowners know that whenever heavy equipment arrives at your house, the bill is rarely small. But the Flint figures have been a little startling. A pilot study done for the state, to get a handle on the challenge ahead, estimated an average price of $7,500 per house to change water lines. The state, in making a $25 million grant to get the program started, set a limit of $5,000 per home. The lowest initial bids came in at $6,000. Why so expensive? Because nothing about this effort is easy, or uncomplicated.

A homeowner in another city having such work done would be likely to see it accomplished with directional boring – a small hole dug near the sidewalk, the new pipe pushed through to the house and connected. But in Flint, the entire line, from the main in the street to the house, has to be unearthed and replaced and reconnected, because lead corrosion runs its entire length. It’s a lot more work. A lot more digging. And a lot more money.

It turns out that digging a hole in the ground in an older city like Flint is a lot like doing surgery in the 19th century. You never really know what you’re going to find in there.

What sounds simple – dig a hole, find the line, replace the line, fill the hole – rarely is. Once lines are laid, few clues on the surface hint at what might be underneath. People plant trees, gardens, live their lives in the houses above. Years pass, decades. The trees stretch their branches to the sun and roots deep into the earth. The city prospers and grows, falters and contracts. Residents move in and out.

And then, one day maybe 90 years after 1410 Ida and its neighbors were new, a bunch of guys in hardhats, mud on their boots, stand staring into a hole at the curb.

There’s good news to report: The maple tree in the park strip was planted far enough away from the service line that they didn’t have to take it down. The bad news: There’s good reason to believe the connection between the line and the main is weak and could give way as the work begins on it; of the seven such blowouts to happen as the line-replacement project gets running, five have been on Ida Avenue.

“Must have been a Friday or Monday,” when those lines were installed, laborer and shovel man Derrick Russell says, to chuckles, acknowledging a fact of the work week that endures across generations.

If the connection blows, it’ll be a pain and a half. The hole in the ground – already the size of two graves – will fill with water in a matter of minutes, and the water will have to be shut off to the whole street until it’s pumped out and the connection replaced. It will be yet another complication in a project jammed with them.

What sorts of complications? Every pipe replacement starts with paperwork, because the city isn’t just replacing the lead service lines that run from the water main to the curb, i.e., the part of the line that is city owned. Because the entire system was damaged by untreated water that caused lead from the pipes to leach into the system, they’re replacing the private portion as well, the lines that run from the curb to each house, and that requires written permission from homeowners, who may be absentee.

The houses on Ida Avenue were built in the 1920s. Part of the street is brick, laid in a herringbone pattern. Old street bricks are valuable, and must be preserved at the request of the city’s street department. Sometimes a sidewalk has to be destroyed to get to the line, and that requires repair, as does the street where the hole is dug.

But the main problem is, this is an old neighborhood in an old city. And the city did things differently decades ago.

Our peculiar infrastructure

Take the use of lead. Although the metal has been known to be toxic for thousands of years, its advantages as a pipe material – it’s so malleable it can be easily bent with the hands – kept it in use for plumbing well after the houses on Ida Avenue were built.

“Lead was the Cadillac of pipe material back in the day,” said Rick Freeman, director of engineering for Rowe Professional Services Co. in Flint, and one of the co-authors of the pilot study. “They were living high in Flint, then.”

Rowe oversaw the replacement of 33 service lines, in an effort to get a sense of the scope and cost of replacing the thousands that will need to be done before the city can be made whole. It’s “thousands” because a precise number can’t be settled on yet; it changes as the project evolves, and it has expanded to include homes with galvanized lines as well (once corroded, the roughness on the inside of galvanized pipe can pick up and hold lead particles from elsewhere in the system). To date, only 224 Flint homes have had their lines replaced, with summer over and cold weather bearing down. More than 17,000 remain to be done. Probably.

All of these contradictions and conundrums fall on McDaniel, the city’s water czar. That the project is known as FAST is an irony McDaniel doesn’t concentrate on.

It’s hard to know how fast pipe replacement can be accomplished in a city where the location of lead service lines was filed not on a city computer, but on 45,000 handwritten index cards. Even after the lines’ locations were determined, other questions arose, McDaniel said. Spread the work out around the city, or concentrate on one area at a time? Which customers would get priority? Should vacant or substandard housing be included? Eventually, the city settled on a simple qualification: To get pipes replaced, a household must have an active water-service account. It doesn’t have to be paid up, but as long as a customer is paying something, they will get a new line.

This erring-on-the-side-of-caution approach is understandable, given the history of government incompetence in Flint. In a story that is now known worldwide, Flint’s water lines were damaged in 2014 by failing to treat water from the Flint River, a highly corrosive water source the state-appointed emergency manager chose to save the impoverished municipality money. Lead, a neurotoxin, leached from the pipes into drinking water, poisoning children and others, and will end up costing the state millions more, in legal settlements, bottled water, and thousands of new pipes.

In his make-do office in the basement of the Flint City Hall, McDaniel’s military background is in evidence. His aide, Nick Anderson, is a veteran and employee of the National Guard and typically wears fatigues to work. The furniture is spartan and the decor consists of a number of city maps with acetate overlays, where neighborhoods targeted for current or upcoming pipe work are marked in grease pencil.

Although the state’s money hasn’t been formally released yet -- McDaniel was hoping the first $5 million would arrive within days -- the project has begun. A $2 million reimbursement to the city from the state, for costs associated with the switch back to Detroit water, along with an extra $190,000 classified as emergency spending, has gotten the project moving.

Down, down, down

Back on Ida Avenue, the first three or four feet of the digging goes quickly, with Jerry Dalrymple at the joystick of the excavator. Four layers of asphalt were laid aside, a few inches of topsoil, and then he’s into heavy, greasy clay. But if he digs too far with the power equipment, he risks damaging a main or sewer line. The rest of the way has to be done by hand, with laborers Russell and Danny Moreno doing the shovel work. It’s not exactly an archaeological dig, but a certain delicacy is called for. They probe with a metal rod before jumping on their shovels when they hit a hard patch.

“Maybe we’ll find Jimmy Hoffa,” Russell says, perhaps the ten thousandth time that joke has been deployed over an open hole in Michigan. So far in this project, the excitement has been confined to the remnants of earlier eras. There are abandoned gas lines, which have to be carefully handled to determine they are actually abandoned; and peculiar connections like the three-pronged “chickenfoot” used for some larger buildings in Flint. Some service lines curve or even loop, for reasons known only to the long-gone people who installed them.

Hoffa’s not down there, but they do find the water main, and with a little more shovel work, the connection to 1410’s service line. It’s a standard connection, and as Russell cuts the lead line, it holds -- not a Friday/Monday installation. The water in the line sprays like a sliced blood vessel for a moment, then dribbles off. It’s taken three hours to get this far. The two go to work on the other side of the curb, digging out the short distance to the connection at the curb stop. At the four-hour mark it’s time to call the plumbers.

Ida Avenue residents welcome the new plumbing, but the work has taken a toll on everybody’s nerves. Besides the construction noise, there’s dust on dry days, mud on wet ones, which drives resident Michael Huntley crazy; he takes pride in having the best yard on the block. At least he did. His pipe replacement, done a few days previous, went awry, and an inexperienced contractor ended up damaging the lawn. Anderson, McDaniel’s aide, said the city will fix the damage and the contractor won’t be back for the next phase, but for Huntley, staring balefully at his ruined lawn, it’s just another blow in more than a year of them.

Huntley isn’t worried about his water, he said. A retired contractor himself, he bought the house as a long-term restoration project, and one of his first projects was replumbing it. When the switch from treated Detroit water to improperly treated Flint River water happened in 2014, he installed a filter, “on a hunch,” he said, once he saw the discolored stuff coming out of his tap.

“Common sense told me to do that,” he said.

Back at the curb, plumbers Ken Davison and his apprentice, Kapus Brown, have arrived. Brown carries a coil of brand-new copper line and pays out enough to reach from the main to the curb connection. That’s all they’ll be doing today. The line to the house was replaced three months ago, when it was sold to an investor. The new owner lives in Las Vegas.

Davison puts on his hard hat and jumps into the hole for the wrench work with a pipe cutter, a new connection valve and a can of pipe dope, adhesive/sealant for the joints. It doesn’t take long, but he’s soon called away to oversee another job elsewhere in the neighborhood. Brown does the connection to the curb stop, his first as an apprentice. Davison will approve it when he returns, and a city inspector will approve both men’s work. Sometimes the inspector arrives in 10 minutes. Sometimes, three hours. The job is essentially done. It’s time for lunch.

A canary in a coal mine?

Two lessons are obvious from watching this process. One is that American infrastructure, with or without untreated water poisoning homes with a neurotoxin, is hardly in fighting form. The American Society of Civil Engineers has been sounding this alarm for some time, and Ron Brenke, director of the ASCE’s Michigan section, agrees.

“If people are getting clean water every day, if the toilet flushes and what’s in it goes away, what’s the problem?” he said, describing the mindset of most residents (and, more to the point, taxpayers). “Out of sight, out of mind” is the civil engineer’s shorthand for infrastructure neglect, and anyway, asset management -- keeping track of sewers and water mains, doing routine maintenance to avoid catastrophe -- is hard.

Brenke serves on Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, and said better regional coordination is necessary to better manage the state’s resources, which are vital to a growing economy. He also sits on the Michigan Utility Coordination Committee, charged with making sense of the surprises that await crews like the ones in Flint when they open the ground, for any reason. It’s affiliated with the Miss Dig program, but Brenke points out that Miss Dig, a notification system of utility-line location before excavation begins, is only as good as the information reported to it.

“We need a new process where, when we put something in the ground, you take measurements of X,Y and Z coordinates of where it’s going,” said Brenke. “It will help 20 years from now, but not today. If you abandon something, and don’t pull it out of the ground, it should be marked so it’s in a database. It’s a major undertaking. It will take time, it’s another cost, but it’s important for the future.”

That’s probably too late for Flint, where the release of the first installment of state money will allow the next phase of line replacement to begin, McDaniel said. The process picks up speed as crews gain experience, and some efficiencies are emerging; the latest bids are coming in at below the state’s $5,000 threshold, and McDaniel expects 4,000 homes could be completed next spring and summer.

(The crews will work as far into the cold season as temperatures allow. The problem in winter is not the ground, which can be excavated even if it’s frozen, but the asphalt on the surface street repair. It’s always something.)

The state’s initial $25 million may cover a quarter or a third of the project, he said. Congress authorized spending last month of up to $170 million for water infrastructure projects in poor cities that includes Flint, but others with lead problems, as well.

Back at 1410, Jasmine Tincoff answers the door with her 4-year-old daughter, Anaiah, at her side. She’s been in this house for a month, moving from the city’s north side. No one told her to expect the crews that day, and she was surprised to find her water turned off that morning. But like most people in Flint, she had bottled water on hand, so it wasn’t much of an inconvenience.

“I’m so glad to be here,” she said. “My daughter was getting rashes before” when the city was using river water. Once the water was turned back on, she’d have to flush her lines thoroughly before filling the bathtub, and more testing would have to be done. But Anaiah’s rashes, and bottled-water baths, would be over for 1410 Ida Avenue.

Freeman, who worked on the pilot project, is frank about what Flint faces.

“Realistically, it simply can’t be done quickly,” he said. “If the project is to do the entire city, this is going to take years.”


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