“Flint still doesn’t have clean water” was how Michelle Wolf closed her now-notorious set at the White House correspondents’ dinner Saturday. I hear that a lot. The other day I saw a Facebook post featuring the brother of a friend, who lives in Indiana, thanking him for contributing to some church’s bottled-water drive, “for the people of Flint, who still don’t have clean water.”
As someone who lives about an hour away from Flint, this puzzles me. Flint has been receiving clean, treated Detroit water since shortly after the lead-poisoning scandal was fully revealed; the source was switched back from the Flint River. Of course, the damage had already been done, but in case you’re not up on all the deets, here’s what happened, in a nutshell:
The city, under emergency financial management, made the decision to make the switch from expensive treated Detroit water to the far-cheaper local source in 2014, restarting a riverfront treatment plant that had been mothballed for decades. This was done to save money and bide time until another source, a separate and brand-new water authority drawing from Lake Huron, came online. However, the people in charge of making the switch and running the utility didn’t properly treat the Flint River water.
We have known that corrosive water can eat away at lead pipes and leach the neurotoxin into drinking water for decades. Did we dig up every lead pipe in the country as a result? No. We started treating water with corrosion-control chemicals that, over time, build up a protective layer on the inside of pipes. When all this started, I had Alan check our service line, installed in the 1940s when the house was built. As far as we can tell, it’s lead, so we had the water tested. Lead levels were undetectable; Detroit water is treated properly. (Thanks, beb!) But in Flint, the plant had been out of service so long it didn’t even have the equipment necessary to inject these chemicals. They made the switch anyway. To save money.
And the rest, as Mitch Albom might say, using a cliche in a one-sentence paragraph, is history.
This is about as far as even a well-informed non-Michigan-residing American’s knowledge likely goes. But here’s some more: Besides making the switch back, the city began providing free water filters and bottled water to all residents. Experts advised letting the treated Detroit water flow freely, so the pipes could begin to “heal,” so to speak. As you can imagine, the residents of Flint had, shall we say, lost faith in expert opinion and most other forms of civic authority. Some stopped paying their bills. The public consensus was screw healing these pipes, tear them out and put in new ones. Cases of bottled water sat stacked on porches all over the city. The forces began to muster to start the slow process of pipe replacement.
When I went over there about 18 months ago, it was to watch a typical replacement process for one house and describe why it’s taking so long to accomplish. You can read the story I wrote then, or accept this summation: Because it’s amazingly complicated.
Flint is an old city fallen on hard times, and it has many of the same problems Detroit does with blight and abandonment. So when people elsewhere use “Flint doesn’t have clean water yet” as some sort of virtue-signaling catch phrase, I get a little peevish. Because before anyone turns one shovelful of dirt, about a million questions have to be answered: How do we prioritize? Who goes first? Who’s the owner of this property? (Often a difficult question to answer with so many rentals.) And so on. And that’s before money even enters the picture.
I don’t like to quote my own work, but I liked this passage:
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.
And this part:
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, 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.
Oh, and another complication: Winter, which regular readers know lasts for-goddamn-ever in Michigan. Asphalt can only be laid in warmer weather, and the holes created by this process are not suitable for the emergency winter pothole filler known as cold patch.
So you can see why “Flint still doesn’t have clean water” is a little glib. There is no magic wand, no hurry-up process, to replace thousands of service lines. In the meantime, state officials say (and I believe them) that a house with a properly installed water filter has safe drinking water. Again, you can’t blame residents for being suspicious, but chemistry is chemistry. Between the treated source water, filters and bottled water, even a poor resident of Flint in a lead-service-pipe house should be OK. (The state recently announced it was suspending free bottled water for Flint residents, in a move that should be in a dumbass-PR textbook eventually. But that’s a side issue.)
Meanwhile, lead levels are rising among children in? Anyone? Yes, Detroit. Why? The usual suspects — paint, mostly — but in a new delivery system: Dust. Demolitions of the city’s infamous oversupply of vacant and blighted housing have picked up in recent years, and even with a firehose spraying over the wreckage as it comes down, a certain amount of lead is aerated, and kids living within 200 feet of these demos are at risk.
Basically, it sucks to be poor. Or, put another way, they don’t call it “poor health” for nothing.
Man, I am running slow this morning. Barely slept last night, thinking about the approaching 4:30 a.m. alarm. I had to take Kate to the airport, where she left for three weeks of study abroad in Havana. I’m so envious, as I’d hoped to go to Cuba sometime this year, before the door slammed shut again. (I know, it’s possible. It’s just more of a pain.) She’ll be exploring the roots of native music and dance for two credit hours before commencing the rest of her summer break. I tried to shove all the knowledge I have of travel in places that aren’t modern Western democracies into her head; we’ll see if it takes. I just want her to have a good time and learn the rumba.
But now she’s laying over in Ft. Lauderdale, and will be officially overseas by mid afternoon. She’s carrying my vintage Nikon SLR, and I hope to see it again, but who knows. Alan packed her off with saxophone reeds and guitar strings as gifts for the native musicians they’ll be encountering; I expect new ones are hard to come by. She’s also carrying little Dove chocolates and Twizzlers to share with kids. I expect she’ll make some new friends.
Me, I gotta get some chores done.