The City That Unpoisoned Its Pipes – Next City

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The City That Unpoisoned Its Pipes

Forty-five miles west of Flint, Lansing is nearly done replacing all of its lead pipes. Here’s how the midsize state capital achieved a feat few other cities have managed.

Story by Anna ClarkTwitter

Photography by Nick Hagen

Published on Aug 8, 2016

More than two years after the water switch in Flint, Michigan — a disastrous decision made under state oversight that put toxic levels of lead and other contaminants into the water of a city of nearly 100,000 residents — there’s no fix in sight. Criminal and civil prosecutions are unfolding; democratic representation has returned with an empowered mayor and council; public health programs have expanded to meet new needs, and people across the state are reckoning with the ignoble reasons why the early water concerns voiced by residents in the relatively poor city went unheard for so long. But the crux of the problem remains: Improperly treated water corroded the aging pipes, and despite Flint’s return to a safer water source and the institution of a free water filter program, those pipes still need to be replaced.

Early bids for the work were rejected by Mayor Karen Weaver as too expensive. Contractors submitted new bids, but as of this writing, the city is launching a second pilot project that is expected to replace only 250 pipes. An engineering firm’s recent report says that it would cost $80 million to replace 10,000 pipes in Flint, part of a recommended infrastructure campaign that would cost $214 million.

Installation of the pipes won’t begin for some time, then, and completion of the citywide infrastructure overhaul may take as long as eight years. Meanwhile, despite official assurances that filtered water is safe, many cautious residents continue to live on bottled water — not just to drink, but also to cook, to bathe, to wash, to brush their teeth, to make ice cubes and, for some, even to water their gardens. Since January 9, nearly 2 million cases of bottled water have been distributed to residents.

While the Flint crisis was particularly horrifying, it also served as a wake-up call. Flint is hardly the first city with lead-contaminated water. More than a decade ago, news first emerged that Washington, D.C.’s corroded pipes were causing lead levels in the water that were up to 83 times the safe limit, a problem caused by changes in the treatment process. As in Flint, officials insisted that water was safe, while the problem worsened. Five lawsuits are still pending. The Washington Post investigation that helped uncover the story also spotlighted the manipulation of lead testing around the nation, such as in Boston, Seattle, New York City and Portland, Oregon.

Meanwhile, cities like Philadelphia, Newark, Milwaukee and Providence, Rhode Island, brought newfound urgency to their lead level self-examinations, prompted by the headlines from Flint. No fewer than 5,300 American cities were found by CNN to be in violation of federal lead rules, and USA Today detected excessive lead in nearly 2,000 public water systems across all 50 states. The problem is so vast, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it will cost $384 billion by 2030 to provide safe drinking water to all U.S. cities. The American Water Works Association calculates that number at $1 trillion over the next 25 years.

It is tempting to throw up one’s hands in despair. From the generational failure to invest in infrastructure to the anti-tax political climate, it is virtually impossible for cities to gather the resources and political will that it takes to invest in rebuilding water lines — not least because the needed work is underground and invisible.

This is what makes the story of Lansing, Michigan, all the more extraordinary.

The state capital, just 50 miles west of Flint, is one of very few cities that has almost entirely replaced aging, lead-laced pipes and service lines. Madison, Wisconsin, is another — and possibly the only other. Lansing draws its water from the Saginaw Aquifer, 400 feet below the surface; it’s treated by two water plants and fed with 125 wells throughout the community. Ten years ago, the city began to replace its pipes — unprompted by a public health emergency or court order — and in 2017, the work will be complete. The overhaul has been so efficient and cost-effective, residents barely noticed it.

New copper water pipe is hoisted onto the back of a DWL truck to be installed through the city of Lansing. 

“There’s not too much feedback, to tell you the truth,” says Steve Serkaian, the executive director of public affairs for Lansing’s Board of Water and Light. “When we show up at homes to replace the lead service lines, people think there’s a problem with the water.” The notion that there is no problem — that this work is preemptive infrastructure improvement — is so unusual, it comes as a surprise.

“The only way to completely remove lead is to remove the sources of lead,” Serkaian adds.

Lansing has shared its earned expertise with Flint as its neighbor to the east navigates what might be termed the fourth act of its water crisis. But its story resonates far beyond the state borders. As communities around the country scrutinize their own water works, the story of this midsize city in the center of Michigan offers a hopeful way forward.

“NO LEVEL OF LEAD IS SAFE”

Virgil Bernero has been the Democratic mayor of Lansing since 2006. He held onto his office after he lost a campaign for governor in 2010 to Republican Rick Snyder.

But before his tenure in the city, at the time of the lead debacle in Washington, D.C., Bernero was a state senator. The D.C. drama “caught our attention,” he says, and he began asking questions of the city’s Board of Water and Light, and the state’s environmental and public health agencies.

“We basically got the brush-off,” Bernero says. “We were just assured that the water system in America was the safest anywhere, and don’t worry about it.”

Lansing has a lot in common with Flint. They are about the same size, and both are historic General Motors towns; Lansing has a long Oldsmobile legacy, while Flint is where GM was founded. Both communities have been challenged by the diminishing manufacturing base in the Midwest. But Lansing diverges from Flint in crucial ways. It is, first of all, home to the state government, and it also has a strong economic engine in Michigan State University, based 2 miles away in East Lansing. These are the anchors that sustained Lansing economically over the years.

Despite the “broad, bland assurances,” Bernero and his staff attempted to locate facts about the water system. They also reached out to Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards — the same expert who brought both the Washington, D.C., and Flint lead crises to light. (Bernero calls Edwards, “the modern-day Paul Revere of lead in the water.”)

“The more we dug into it, the more cause for concern there was with our [lead] testing procedures,” Bernero says.

There was a commonplace reason for this doubt. Water quality standards rely on cities to self-regulate and self-report, and interpretations of the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule are notoriously patchy. Local lead testing is often done only after water has been flushed through the pipes, which makes it seem like there is less lead in the water than there really is. Michigan’s water regulators used this flushing process in Flint over the 18 months when it was assuring residents that the contaminated water was safe. Edwards has long advocated for the EPA to close this loophole.

The Board of Water and Light had an effective anti-corrosion program for its water, according to Serkaian, where added phosphates gave the lead service lines a protective coating that kept lead and other metals from leeching into the water. (Phosphate treatment was missing from the Flint water plan.) But, while Lansing’s lead tests appeared fine, “we didn’t have confidence in the results,” Bernero says. Given that no level of lead exposure is safe, his team wanted to err on the side of caution.

Bernero formed a safe drinking water task force that included Michigan State professors and other experts who “did not have a vested interest in the system such as it was.” Bernero chaired the task force. Together, they put the system under the microscope. However, they found it difficult to get straight answers from what he describes as the “completely defensive” leadership of the Board of Water and Light. “I kept being told to butt out, basically,” by local experts who assured him that the process was functioning perfectly.

“It’s essentially what you saw in Flint — a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, defensive posture rather than what you’d expect in putting public safety first, putting public health first, when it comes to drinking water,” Bernero says.

Lansing Mayor Virgil “Virg” Bernero stands in the John F. Dye Water Conditioning Plant in Lansing. 

But in 2004, the BWL board of commissioners — an all-volunteer body of eight citizens (now 11) appointed by the mayor and approved by city council — accepted the task force’s recommendation to direct its management to replace all the lead service lines in the city. It got to work on a methodical 10-year, $42 million plan to replace every pipe in the city: all 14,000 of them. That plan went slightly over schedule, but currently, there’s only 325 more to replace; completion is expected by June 2017.

Notably, this work began just before Michigan hit its roughest era since the Great Depression. The national housing crisis hit a year after Bernero took office, leading to a wave of foreclosure and disinvestment that hit the state especially hard. Then, the auto industry was at the brink of collapse, prompting General Motors and Chrysler to plead for federal support and declare bankruptcy. (They both paid back federal funds ahead of schedule and returned to profitability.)

Meanwhile, Michigan drastically cut revenue sharing to cities in order to plug holes in its own budget, a habit that continues to be costly to local governments. Michigan is the only state in the nation where total municipal revenues dropped between 2002 and 2012, according to the Michigan Municipal League. Revenue sharing was cut by 57 percent — by far the worst in the nation, and over a period during which state revenues rose by 29 percent. Meanwhile, 45 other states increased funding to local governments during that same decade. Of the other four that faced a drop, the second-highest cut was 14 percent in Kansas.

“The big deficiency in dealing with distressed communities in Michigan … is there’s no mechanism in law to invest,” says Tony Minghine, MML’s associate executive director and COO. He says that cities around the country struggle with impoverished neighborhoods, but Michigan — with one of the most restrictive tax policies in the country and revenue sharing cuts — has created an unusual number of almost wholly disinvested cities. “Our system is built only to ratchet downwards. There’s no upside. … [The state] can paint it anyway they like, but they placed a greater priority on state and bureaucratic things than local services,” Minghine adds.

Overall, since 2002, the state has diverted $7.5 billion from Michigan jurisdictions — a period that simultaneously saw its cities facing big cuts to public services, including police, fire and infrastructure. Detroit ended up in municipal bankruptcy, and, as was the case in Flint, Detroit and a number of smaller cities, under emergency management. Meanwhile, the state cut business taxes by $3 billion over the last five years. Residents have noticed the lack of investment. “Infrastructure of cities” was named as their top concern in a recent survey by Michigan State University.

For Lansing, the diverted revenue translated into a loss of $63.5 million. The void came on top of a drastic drop in property taxes in the wake of the housing crisis, which left foreclosures, lowered home values and vacancy in its wake. (In the 2010 U.S. Census, Michigan was the only state that lost population.) Because of stringent laws that limit how Michigan cities can raise revenue, there is little that local leaders can do to make up the difference.

All this might have thrown a less focused city off track — and really, nobody would have blamed them if it had. Still, they kept on going with their plan to de-lead the pipes.

“We didn’t do it with a lot of fanfare,” Bernero says. “We quietly built it into a budget.”

The money for the project came the old-fashioned way: Lansing “just raised the rates in the city budget,” Bernero says. One unusual advantage: The 130-year-old Board of Water and Light is a wholly owned city subsidiary, so it could easily build the cost of new infrastructure into its rates, “and yet [its] rates are still competitive with private sector power companies,” Bernero says. “We were probably a little leaner on some things, like administrative costs or whatever.”

It also means that the BWL, because it owns the entire service line — that is, the piece that connects the main pipe under the street to the point where it enters a home or building — can replace everything without charging the customer. In other communities, the customer may own a portion of the line that is under their property, which means that if a utility wanted to replace the entire thing, it would likely need to put a portion of the cost on the customer’s tab.

Bernero says that he had been open to privatizing or selling the Board of Water and Light, but over time, he became convinced that it was a huge asset to the city, not just financially, but in its ability to provide customized service for metro Lansing.

The city’s other trick was in designing a graceful method for execution that cuts the cost and time of pipe replacement in half. After two years of digging trenches, and with the prospect of disrupting untold square miles of street, sidewalks and yards, Lansing decided to rethink the way its workers were laying the new lines. Experimentation yielded an innovative technique. All workers have to do is cut two squares in the ground at either end of the line. One exposes the water main and service connection at the curb, and the other exposes the service box. Then, using a unique tool invented by engineers in the city’s own machine shop, it takes just one elegant motion to thread the old lead pipe out and the new copper pipe in.

“We submit notifications [to residents] to explain what’s happening,” Serkaian says, “because we need permission to enter their basement and disconnect the lead service line to the meter, and hook the meter up to the new copper line. There’s a minor inconvenience for an hour or so in not having water service.” Occasionally, the city also has to issue traffic advisories; vehicles may be diverted when crews are working on major streets.

But that’s it.

Andy Rosales, a mechanic for the Lansing Board of Water and Light, digs for lead water piping to replace on Mahlon Street in Lansing.

Lansing also minimized disruption to the ground by mapping out its pipe replacement to follow the construction of another infrastructure improvement: updating its sewage system to better deal with flooding. The sheer scale of the pipe project also had accelerated efficiency built into it: Work crews have done it so many times by now, they are getting faster and more clever at it. “They’ve learned how to overcome any and all obstacles,” Serkaian says.

Recent tests, according to Serkaian, show no detectable levels of lead in the city’s water. But despite that, Lansing continues its corrosion control program. Older homes have lead-based plumbing fixtures and lead solders that could be a risk.

To keep things in perspective: The greatest risk of lead exposure for children is ingesting paint in old homes. Ingham County, where Lansing sits, is engaged in a public awareness program about that right now. But as the Flint water crisis reveals, water too can be a risk when lead pipes deteriorate. And when they do, it creates an especially intractable problem for cities.

Yvonne Lewis is a Flint homeowner who raised three children in the city. She attended school and college in the city as well. In June, she testified before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. “I don’t drink the water,” she says. “I don’t cook with it. I use bottled water to brush my teeth.” She uses a Crock-Pot in her bathroom to heat up the bottled water she uses to wash “because I don’t like bathing in cold water.”

Lewis also spoke about how the broken public trust makes it difficult to move forward — not just in replacing the pipes as soon as possible, but in each resident’s ability to feel safe day to day. “How can I feel confident in the messages I’m receiving?” she asked the commission. It feels increasingly impossible for residents to get the information they need “so we can make informed decisions.”

“We need a clear, concise plan of action to replace the pipes so we don’t have to live out of a bottle of water when we’re surrounded by the Great Lakes of Michigan,” she said, her voice rising at the conclusion of her testimony. “Thank you.”

“NOT A PARTISAN THING”

Lansing has become a kind of mentor to other cities questioning their assumptions about public water. Since the Flint crisis broke in national headlines, Bernero and the Board of Water and Light have fielded calls from municipal leaders all around the country asking how they did it. “We welcome any calls or visits,” Serkaian says.

Lansing has also sent mechanical crews east on I-69 to train their counterparts in Flint. It has shared its tool for efficient pipe replacement with Flint, and offers it to others: “We make them and provide them to any utility that wants one,” Serkaian says. And Bernero has spent many hours talking with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, on the phone and in person, offering strategic advice to help her steer through what may be the toughest first 12 months that any American mayor has ever seen.

“We just asked ourselves what we’d hope someone would do for us,” Bernero says. “That’s how this country responds to crisis.”

The mayor is empathetic to competing priorities in city government. But that’s exactly why he says cities should find out where they stand with their water systems. “We’ve got pipes in the ground in many cities that are close to 100 years old, aging, underground and easy to ignore,” he says. They have to be replaced eventually anyway — lead ones all the more so — and while it might seem that “no news is good news” when it comes to pipes, any slight change in water chemistry can pose a devastating threat, as it did in Flint and Washington, D.C.

Should a city take on such a project, it’s important to do it in a way that doesn’t incite unnecessary panic. “People have enough to be afraid of, and we don’t want to incite fears about the water, and we don’t have to,” Bernero says. “It should just be done methodically, thoughtfully.”

He’s also candid about how the state holds a lot of responsibility for the water in each community. While Bernero says that he has worked collaboratively with Governor Rick Snyder, his former political opponent, on numerous projects, he says he is disappointed in Snyder’s response to Flint. At the time that the state acknowledged the lead problem last fall, it had a surplus of $400 million. Bernero believes Snyder should have designated a portion of that surplus for the complete overhaul of Flint’s pipes. Given the public urgency and the political mood, he likely could have persuaded the GOP-dominated state legislature to support the project. Had he done that, the city might already be in the process of replacing the system, rather than launching a second-round pilot project, after the first bids from contractors were rejected for being too costly.

“The governor had an obligation to say that the state government broke [the water system under the leadership of an emergency manager] and the state government should have fixed it … . It’s stunning. He really tried to get out on the cheap,” Bernero says.

Bernero readily acknowledges that Lansing was fortunate to be able to pay for its new pipes through a simple rate increase. Madison, Wisconsin, was also served by its city-owned and -operated system. It began its replacement program in 2001 and by 2012, it had replaced 8,000 lead water lines. It was a pioneering $19.4 million effort. The city offered $1,000 rebates to homeowners who replaced the pipes they owned, with their cost averaging $1,300. (Apartment owners paid more.) The reimbursement money came from revenue the Madison Water Utility received from providing space on its water towers for cellular antennas. The idea of using public money to help pay for the replacement of private pipes was controversial, especially when some doubted the risk of the lead service lines. But, especially in the wake of the Flint water crisis, the city has received national acclaim.

Joseph Kane, a senior research analyst and associate fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, points to other methods of creative financing. PENNVEST is a statewide program in Pennsylvania that offers low-interest loans and some grants to localities for accelerated improvements to their water systems. The money comes from a combination of voter-approved state funds, grants from the EPA and loan repayments from previous projects that are reinvested into new ones. It’s put about $7 billion in upgrades to more than 3,000 projects since the program began in 1988.

In another model of state support, Wisconsin recently allotted a $1 million loan to Milwaukee to replace 70,000 lead pipes, prioritizing the ones serving day care centers and schools. Meanwhile, Kane says that some communities are experimenting with public-private partnerships for water infrastructure financing. That includes Nassau County, New York, which signed a 20-year contract worth $1.2 billion in 2015 with United Water to manage its wastewater plants, pumping stations and several thousand pipes. Jersey City, New Jersey, contracted out its entire water operations, management and maintenance to United Water way back in 1996, the first and largest deal of its kind.

But for all the variation in the nation’s 50,000 different community water systems, Kane says that there is often a failure to account for the full price of water. “What is the true value of water, and as regions, are we internalizing it fully?” he asks. It’s a questioned that citizens and public leaders rarely reckon with. That echoes what David LaFrance, chief executive of the American Water Works Association said in January, when the Flint crisis was making national headlines. ““Water service is priced well below its value,” he said, “but there are still families that struggle to meet essential needs. In many cases, utilities and customers will have to work collaboratively to remove lead service lines.”

LaFrance also highlighted AWWA’s 2012 report, “Buried No Longer,” on how to meet the nation’s water infrastructure challenges. And Kane says the EPA’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center is also a helpful tool.

But one way or another, the point is to act — not perpetuate the kick-the-can strategy of past decades.

“Communities across the country have made decisions to not replace lead service lines because phosphate control is an effective way to meet state and federal standards,” Serkaian says. “The community has to have political will and financial wherewithal to sustain funding to replace all the lead service lines. The Board of Water and Light, without any special assessments or funding, chipped away year by year.”

“Infrastructure issues were never a partisan thing,” Bernero says. “We built this country with the greatest infrastructure in world, which resulted in the most productive society, the most incredible middle class in modern history. Now our infrastructure is beginning to go by the wayside, and there’s this Tea Party mentality that makes people afraid to raise taxes for anything.

“People will suffer,” he says, “and of course, the poor suffer the most. Let’s face it, the rich can insulate themselves from travesty … can afford bottled water. They can move out to suburbs or wherever. The rich have always found ways to insulate themselves. Though ultimately, when we have a complete and utter infrastructure failure like the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, no one is safe.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Detroit. She has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, NBC News online, Pacific Standard and other publications. She is a political media correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review. Anna is the editor of A Detroit Anthology and author of Michigan Literary Luminaries: From Elmore Leonard to Robert Hayden. A former Fulbright fellow, she is also the director of applications for Write a House. Her website is annaclark.net.

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Nick Hagen is a freelance editorial and documentary photographer in Detroit, MI. See his work atnickhagenphotography.com