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10 Years Later, Flint Residents Are Still Waiting for Lead Pipes to Be Replaced

Biden pledged to replace all of the US’s lead pipes, but he’d need billions of dollars more from Congress to do it.

Kane Watkins, 9, sits on the edge of his porch playing with toys as crews work to inspect his homes water line as part of the lead line replacement program on August 12, 2021, in Flint, Michigan.

Ten years after government mistakes and cost-cutting measures caused a drinking water disaster that afflicted daily life in Flint, Michigan, and exposed thousands of schoolchildren to harmful levels of lead, residents are still waiting for a resolution as environmentalists warn that the U.S. faces a spiraling water safety and affordability crisis.

In March, a federal judge held city and state officials in contempt of court for failing to reach certain milestones in their ongoing effort replace the lead pipes that brought disaster to Flint’s majority-Black community. The ruling was only the latest legal intervention following a 2017 settlement requiring Flint to finish replacing lead pipes and restore residents’ homes by January 2020, a deadline that was extended during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lead is a neurotoxin. There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, especially for children, who bore the brunt of the public health crisis that followed water contamination in Flint. The crisis forced residents to rely on bottled water for years on end and severely disrupted learning and education among the youth. Parents still report children suffering from seizures 10 years later.

Since the disaster, President Joe Biden made replacing the lead pipes in vulnerable communities across the nation a top environmental priority, but doing so is a monumental task, as residents in Flint have learned while the city and state struggle to meet legal deadlines. Homes and properties are inspected one by one; pipes under streets and yards must be dug up and then everything replaced. Environmental groups say more funding from Congress is badly needed.

“The people of Flint fought for justice, sounding an alarm about the dangers of lead pipes found all over America,” said Melissa Mays, an organizer with Flint Rising and a plaintiff in legal actions on behalf of residents, in a statement this week. “We won’t stop fighting to fix Flint and stand ready to help others living with the threat of lead poisoning from drinking a glass of water.”

Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that there are 9.2 million lead service lines that connect homes to water mains under the street. Lead lines carry water in all 50 states, including states that claim not to have any, and a lack of state data makes the EPA’s estimate a likely undercount, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The group estimates the number of lead lines spread across the U.S. could be as high as 12.8 million.

Michigan’s Cost-Cutting Causes an Environmental Disaster

Back in 2011, Flint was facing $25 million deficit that prevented the working-class city from providing proper services to its 100,000 residents. Michigan’s former Republican governor, Rick Snyder, appointed an emergency financial manager to put Flint back on fiscal track — without any additional funding or revenue.

What followed was a cascade of cost-cutting measures that would eventually lead to catastrophe that became a national symbol of environmental racism. On April 25, 2014, Flint’s water supply intake was switched from the Detroit system to the Flint River, and improperly treated water began corroding aging lead pipes across the city. People drinking water from the tap were essentially drinking through a lead straw.

Lead lines carry water in all 50 states, including states that claim not to have any, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates the number of lead lines spread across the U.S. could be as high as 12.8 million.

Some water was also contaminated with bacteria that caused a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that claimed 12 lives and sickened dozens more. Half the cases were tracked back to a local hospital, but researchers also linked the outbreak to Flint’s water supply.

While the extent of the crisis would not be fully realized by officials and the public until about 18 months later, environmentalists mark April 25 as a grim anniversary of the day Flint lost access to safe water. Pastor Allen C. Overton, a member of Concerned Pastors for Social Action who grew up in Flint, said 10 years is way too long to secure safe drinking water and environmental justice, but he remains faithful in “the power of people.”

“We will not stop pushing the City of Flint to successfully remove the wrecked lead pipes still delivering water to homes, and restoring yards and sidewalks damaged by the work to replace lead pipes,” Overton said in a statement to mark the anniversary this week.

Today, there are about 2,000 homes where residents have been living in properties that remain damaged by construction associated with the lead pipe replacement program, with yards and sidewalks left dug up or full of dirt, according to the NRDC. While progress has been made, residents in several dozen homes are still waiting on officials to inspect their pipes and replace them if they are made of lead.

In 2020, Michigan agreed to pay $641 million to settle class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of residents. While the settlement was the largest in state history, attorneys and community activists had pushed for more. However, tens of thousands of victims have yet to receive payments from the $626 million pot set aside for residents, with the only money doled out so far going to lawyers, according to an investigation by Capital B.

“The Flint water crisis brought the country’s systemic water problems to the national consciousness, but it offered a warning not just about aging water infrastructure and lead pipes,” said Mary Grant, water policy director at Food & Water Watch, in a statement. “It also stands as condemnation of emergency financial management and the loss of local democratic control of water.”

A decade after Flint’s financial manager sacrificed the community to cut costs, Grant said Michigan must repeal the law allowing the state to appoint emergency financial managers, which she called “racist” for punishing a majority-Black city.

Is President Biden’s $50 Billion for Lead Pipes Enough?

The U.S.’s water infrastructure is old and falling apart in many parts of the country, particularly in low-income areas and Black and Brown communities, where residents often face exorbitant bills and water service shutoffs despite low-quality water. In Flint, rate increases left residents paying some of the nation’s highest utility bills for tap water in 2015 when the contamination was discovered.

President Biden has pledged to fix the problem, but he would need to win a second term and coax billions of additional dollars from Congress to do it.

In November 2023, the EPA proposed a new rule that would require most lead pipes across the country to be replaced in the next 10 years so the nation can realize the Biden administration’s vision of a “lead-free future.” On top of this proposal, water utilities are also facing new regulations of certain PFAS, a toxic but widely used class of chemicals that has contaminated large portions of the U.S. water supply.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, one of Biden’s signature accomplishments, provides $50 billion for updating water infrastructure, the largest investment in United States history. About $15 billion is earmarked for replacing lead pipes, along with $11.7 billion in state revolving funds that can be used for lead pipes or other problems, which vary from region to region.

For example, lead pipes are a common problem in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions where treatment facilities and underground water infrastructure is old and degraded, while the Southwest has newer infrastructure but struggles with drought and arsenic contamination, according to Erik Olson, senior strategic director of environmental health at the NRDC.

Biden should be commended for doing more on the issue of access to clean drinking water than any previous president, Olson told Truthout in an interview. However, the scope of the nation’s clean water problem is massive.

“That’s a huge, huge accomplishment,” Olson said of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. “But is it enough? No.”

Olson said infrastructure updates such as replacing lead pipes, repairing sewer systems and improving water treatment will ultimately take more funding from Congress and greater cooperation and spending by state and local governments. As illustrated by water disasters in Flint and later in Jackson, Mississippi, and beyond, water infrastructure problems are often concentrated in underserved areas that have suffered years of divestment. This is especially true in the age of climate disruption, when worsening storms disproportionately leave vulnerable communities flooded or without clean water.

“While it hits communities across the country, it tends to hit hardest in communities of color and low-income communities,” Olson said.

Though $50 billion is a good start, Olson said government and utility estimates for the amount needed to fully restore water infrastructure in the U.S. ranges between $600 billion and $1 trillion.

At Food & Water Watch, Mary Grant is promoting the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-New Jersey), Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) that currently has more than 100 co-sponsors in the House and Senate. The WATER Act would invest an additional $35 billion in water infrastructure, including the replacement of lead pipes.

“We must mark this solemn anniversary by increasing the pressure on Congress to pass legislation that properly funds safe drinking water for every person in the country — now and in the future — once and for all,” Grant said.

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