The embattled city of Flint has received nearly half a billion dollars in federal and state aid over the past two years to replace its aging water pipelines and make restitution for any damage that may have been done to its citizenry by lead-contaminated H2O.
But at least 22 other Michigan communities have an even worse tainted water problem than Flint, according to recent data from the Michigan Dept. of Health & Human Services (DHHS). How are they going to pay to fix it?
Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission released a report at the end of last year that argued that Michigan must close a $60 billion gap over the next two decades in order to achieve a modern infrastructure system. Investing in Michigan’s aging water systems, the report contends, is an investment in public health. Many of Michigan’s community water systems, including Flint’s, were built 50-100 years ago.
A survey by Reuters news agency found late last year that there are some 3,000 areas throughout the country with water quality worse than Flint’s. In Michigan, state Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) records show that six private water supplies in Michigan and two municipalities — not including Flint — meet or exceed the federal limit on lead and copper in water tested at the customer tap. Another six private and 16 municipal systems across the state, ranging in size from 25 customers to more than 120,000, tested for levels that are below the federal limit but above safety benchmarks used by the World Health Organization (WHO) and by Virginia Tech researchers. Michigan cities with lead at or above the WHO benchmark include Kalamazoo (the second-largest water supply system in the state), Muskegon Heights, Benton Harbor, Owosso, Ionia, Marysville and St. Louis in Gratiot Counrty.
None of these communities has the financial capability to launch a renovation effort comparable to what Flint is now able to utilize using state and federal tax dollars.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver’s “Operation Fast Start,” which has taken more than a year to get off the ground, claims to have replaced water service lines in more than 3,000 domiciles out of at least 20,000 homes and businesses that “Fast Start” hopes to repair by the year 2020.
What “Fast Start” engineers and contractors have found so far is what many Flint residents already knew — that the “poisoning” of Flint residents that took place on a citywide basis over the past three years never happened.
That’s because many if not most of the service lines to private residences were already “coppered out,” i.e. they already had copper (not galvanized lead) service lines from their interior taps all the way out to the street on which they were situated. No replacement action was necessary.
For example, on one street in zip code 48503 — by every account the Flint area with the highest Elevated Blood Lead Levels (EBLLs) — two-thirds of the homes were found just last week to be “coppered out.” Only a third needed any repairs at all, and except for a single home, those were only partial. On this street, homeowners have been able to drink water straight from the tap without filters for the past three years. Both the quality of their water and the EBLLs of the occupants have passed every safety test.
But the squeaky wheel always gets the grease. All this work — necessary and unnecessary — is being paid for by state and federal taxpayers (make it as fungible as possible, please!). This is thanks to Mayor Weaver’s relentless rattling of the “tin cup,” reinforced by cries of outrage from local politicians that Flint has been devastated by a series of penny-pinching, arrogant, and incompetent state-appointed emergency managers and other public officials. It hasn’t helped that the city’s virtually useless record-keeping over the years has made it impossible for anyone to determine where work was needed and where it was not.
Fact is, even during the height of the Flint “water crisis,” there has been ample evidence that Flint’s overall water quality was at least as good — and in many cases, better — than a surprising number of other Michigan communities.
The latest evidence comes from the Michigan Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, a division of the state DHHS, which lists the percentages of children tested for lead with blood lead levels over 5 ug/dL (“Elevated Blood Lead Levels” or “EBLLs”) in each Michigan zip code.
Zip code 48503 is the only Flint zip code entirely within the city limits of Flint and was the Flint zip code with the highest percentage of EBLLs in 2015 (5.7%).
Zip codes with higher percentages of EBLLS than zip code 48503 in 2015* were:
— 48202-48215, 48221, 48224, 48238 (all within Detroit);
— 49504-7 (Grand Rapids);
— 49001 and 49007 (Kalamazoo);
— 49221 (Adrian);
— 49256 (Morenci);
— 49247 (Hudson);
— 49224 (Albion);
— 48708 (Bay City);
— 49203 (Jackson);
— 49442 (Muskegon);
— 49419 (Hamilton);
— 49431 (Ludington);
— 49454 (Scottsville);
— 49829 (Escanaba);
— 48060 (Port Huron);
— 49107 (Buchanan);
— 49058 (Hastings);
— 48335; (Farmington);
— 49014 (Battle Creek); and
— 49858 (Menominee).
Here’s the kicker — since 2011 (not 2015) the percentage of EBLLs in zip code 48335 (Farmington) has been almost exactly the same as in zip code 48503. That’s in the prosperous city of Farmington, where water quality experts and civil rights advocates claim something like what “happened” in Flint could never occur.