(EDITOR’S NOTE, 4/9/19, 11:52 AM ET: This is the second installment in our multi-part series on the five-year anniversary of the Flint Water Crisis, about the risk of aging city infrastructure. Read part 1 here.)
When Flint, Michigan switched from Detroit water to water from the Flint River in April of 2014, the changing chemical composition of the water began to corrode the city’s water infrastructure leading to the Flint Water Crisis.
While the water quality is far better today, much of that infrastructure still needs to be replaced. People with corroded lead pipes still rely on donated water for cooking, drinking, even bathing. Though the repairs are ahead of schedule, the city is still working to diagnose the city’s water service lines, let alone replace them.
Even then, service lines weren’t the only places the river’s water damaged.
More than Just Service Lines
“We bought our house in 1990 and it had sat empty for 18 months,” William Hammond told Grit Post. “The city came out and did a hard disconnect, which means they dug up the pipe. So when we bought the house we had to have a new pipe installed. And because they hadn’t winterized the house, the pipes all burst. So we replaced virtually all the plumbing when we moved here.”
Hammond, owner of a piano repair and refinishing business, credits this early misfortune for sparing him the brunt of the water crisis. While his neighbors had extremely high lead levels, his newer service line and interior piping were better equipped to handle the water from the Flint River.
“Flint has a very old water system. In fact, most of the country has a very old water system,” said Hammond. “There’s a lot of people in our community — and some of the scientists have said this — that say our water mains should be replaced. Not just the service lines, but the water mains should be replaced because they too were damaged.”
Hammond served on a short-lived commission to address the water crisis. His wife’s work was contracted by the state to help handle water donation distribution. Their church was involved in distributing water to affected residents as well. Hammond knows he’s one of the fortunate ones.
As many as ten million homes nationwide have lead pipes, and those that do and happened to receive water from the Flint River still have to eventually face lead seeping into water even after their service lines are replaced. The river water damaged other home appliances as well. Some homes in Flint are, for instance, eligible for home water heater replacements through the State of Michigan.
“If I take a shower for three days and take a bath on the fourth my water is coming out orange,” Dawn Lawler told MLive.
Lawler, whose 5-year-old suffers from a skin condition attributed to the water crisis, launched an online petition to get the city’s help replacing home pipes and water tanks damaged by the Flint River’s corrosive water. Her petition gained 12,627 signatures.
On World Water Day in March, activist group Color of Change took Lawler’s petition to the Mayor’s office. Mayor Karen Weaver did not meet with the group (she was too busy meeting Elon Musk), but Flint police did — the activists were escorted out of city hall by officers.
City Administrator Steve Branch called the Color of Change demonstration a “farce,” noting that most of the signatures the petition gathered were not from Michigan.
Weaver’s office has been contacted multiple times by Grit Post for cooperation with this series and has not responded to requests for comment.
Building a Better Flint
The more infrastructure improvements the city is forced to undertake, the more cost is placed on an already burdened and cash-strapped city. Flint has been in decline so long that a documentary on its fall, Roger and Me, launched the career of filmmaker Michael Moore 30 years ago.
But Hammond has a bold proposal.
In addition to helping the city through the water crisis, Hammond serves as the treasurer of Flint’s Economic Development Corporation. And he’s proposing using the necessary repair of infrastructure after the water crisis as an opportunity.
“The answer has to be different than the way we’re dealing with things now,” he said. “We should replace the water mains, and if we’re going to do that, that means digging up the streets, that means we’re going to have new streets. Well, if we’re going dig up the streets anyway, why don’t we do something really smart and bury all of the other infrastructure, all the electrical equipment.”
This plan would leave Flint with resurfaced roads, renewed water systems and buried power lines. The latter would come as a huge benefit, as underground power lines are protected against inclement weather. Michigan has the fourth highest rate of power outages nationally, so buried lines could prove beneficial to a poorer area of the state.
“Imagine what we would be as a place if we had all of our utilities buried, brand new water systems, brand new sewer systems, all new water mains, new streets,” said Hammond. “We could use this as an opportunity to create an economic boon for ourselves.”
Hammond has found little political will for his plan, however. It would mean a substantial investment in both time and money for Flint to pursue such a dramatic overhaul of the city’s infrastructure. He conceded that Flint residents would likely need to agree to a plan to pay off the project over 50 years in order to afford the investments he calls for.
He’s also certain it’s Flint’s best hope at turning the water crisis recovery into a broader Flint recovery. There are already voices cautioning, however, that recovery has to be for the people of Flint, not through gentrification. Grit Post will explore this tension in detail when discussing the public’s trust in their government later in this series.
Stopping The Next Infrastructure Crisis
At its heart, the Flint Water Crisis was a crisis of failing infrastructure. It was caused as much by decades of neglect for water systems as it was the decision of emergency financial manager Ed Kurtz to change the source of the city’s water.
And the crumbling of infrastructure isn’t unique to Flint or Michigan. It’s a problem at a national scale.
And so Hammond’s solution isn’t just a recipe for Flint, but for America at large. He pointed out reports that the United States electrical grid is vulnerable to cyberattacks and its own age. At our current pace, America won’t repair all its structurally deficient bridges until 2100. And the same piping that caused the Flint crisis exists in cities nationwide.
The next infrastructure crisis could be anywhere, Hammond said.
But getting government to act on Hammond’s ideas might be a hard sell. Governments simply tend to not think about maintenance, argues Tim Woodall of the Adam Smith Institute.
“Politicians are never interested in maintenance because no one does get to cut a red ribbon every time the Forth Bridge is repainted,” he wrote. “The truth being just that the long term provision of goods and services, the maintenance necessary to make that happen, isn’t a process well dealt with by government.”
Put another way, infrastructure isn’t sexy. But it might be reaching a point of critical mass. After all, as Hammond points out, Michigan elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) largely based on her “fix the damn roads” platform.
“I thought when I started talking about the fact that I was writing this book, that I would say ‘infrastructure’ and people would go to sleep. Instead, they want to tell me their story,” said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author of Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead. “They want to talk about their traffic jam, their late flight, their potholes, their awful neighborhood construction problems.”
Kanter said her publisher wanted the word infrastructure in her book’s title because it was a “money word,” a topic on everyone’s mind. And with that being the case, it would reasonably follow that political will exists somewhere to address these problems before another failure causes a Flint-scale crisis.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.