If a lead-laced water supply wasn’t enough to deal with, many residents of Flint, Mich., face a new crisis: Replacing the water heaters, pipes and even the service lines to their homes that may have been damaged by the city’s water.
And for now, it’s unclear whether they will receive any help in covering those costs.
“I hope and pray they start releasing some money,” said homeowner Arthur Woodson, a disabled veteran who lives in a house like many in Flint: built with lead plumbing that, until the city switched to a new water source in 2014, was considered safe.
For residents who already fear their health has been compromised by the water, the emerging related costs are adding to the anxiety, especially considering Flint, a city of 100,000, is among the poorest of its size in the country. The city has for years been dealing with unemployment rates that exceed the national average. With the water crisis now filling daily headlines, many in Flint say banks are refusing to offer refinancing that could free up money to pay for the retrofitting, and that the costs are not covered by insurance.
The crisis has created a perfect storm to strip their houses of their remaining value, they say.
“People feel absolutely trapped,” said Melissa Mays, a homeowner and activist. “We feel like prisoners in our own homes. We’re being poisoned by the very homes we live in.”
The crisis first became known in April 2014, when the city switched its water supply to the Flint River as a temporary measure before a pipeline was built to another source. The change was intended to save money. But soon, residents complained of foul-smelling, odd-colored water.
The Flint River water’s high chloride content wasn’t treated as required, a state task force has reported, and is thought to have weakened the city’s aging water distribution system, which contains a high percentage of lead pipes and plumbing. That is believed to have sent high volumes of lead into the city’s drinking water.
That corrosive Flint River water also is thought to have similarly damaged the pipes and appliances in homes throughout Flint.
Homeowners could shoulder a burden of $4,000 or more to cover the costs of a new water heater, a new plumbing system featuring PVC piping that is not susceptible to corrosion, and a new service line connection, which is the most costly component because it involves excavation and piping that can extend up to 30 feet from the house to the street, according to Marc Edwards, a national expert on municipal water quality at Virginia Tech.
Edwards has been leading a team of researchers in conducting water tests in Flint, and estimates that correcting the damage caused from corrosion to the water system will cost between $20 million and $200 million. The city says the replacement cost for an entirely new system could be $1.5 billion.
Some residents, including Mays, have already gone through more than one water heater since the crisis began. There is also the worry that new appliances, such as dishwashers and washing machines, are vulnerable to corrosion from the water and will need to be replaced.
Sergio Kapusta, a fellow at NACE International, an industry organization that develops corrosion prevention and control standards in Houston, says that “changing all the mains in the city will not really solve the problem for the homeowners” because the lead piping in these homes probably has been severely compromised. “The corrosion is not going away. It’s still there,” he says.
Before homeowners do anything, they need to wait for the city either to correct sections of its system that are corroded or to replace the system.
“If you just replace your section, you’re still getting all the garbage from the city,” he said.
Kapusta, who teaches material science at Rice University, says that in the meantime the only option for a homeowner is to install a water purification system for basic needs and to drink bottled water.
“There is not a cheap and easy solution, but it’s all you can do until the city replaces the pipes,” he said.
This week, President Obama pledged $80 million in federal money to help in the recovery, and the Michigan House approved $28 million in emergency funding for Flint. The state budget director will open hearings on the budget Feb. 10, but it is not certain how much money, if any, will be allotted to help defray homeowner costs. Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder (R), would not offer specifics. She said that Snyder “is considering every available resource to help with infrastructure replacement” and added that “plans are preliminary, but they are certainly in progress.”
While Flint residents wait, they also face an increased number of shut-off notices due to unpaid bills. In August, Genesee Circuit Judge Archie Hayman issued an emergency injunction to stop them, but last week finance director Jody Lundquist said the city will begin issuing water shut-off notices soon. Kristin Moore, a city spokeswoman, said Flint has a legal obligation to bill for utility services, but that the state of emergency declared by Snyder is forcing the city to review its policy on shut-off notices. None have been issued since December.
The shut offs have raised the ire of some state lawmakers. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced an immediate investigation into the crisis, which will include looking at possible violations at the local level.
“If you can’t drink the water, you shouldn’t be billed for it. That’s nuts and must be fixed,” he wrote on Twitter this week.
State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D) said that a lack of a plan to address the mounting costs affecting residents adds to the crisis. He suggests the city needs to provide a credit for residents who have been paying for water during the time that it was known to be toxic, and that there should be a moratorium on shut-off notices “until there is a system-wide certainty the water is safe.”
“Pretending to go after money that will never be collected is a massive waste of time and also a massive waste of money,” he said. “You are going after people who did nothing wrong.”
Two class-action lawsuits were filed by Flint residents last week against Snyder and other state officials demanding that the city end water shut offs and that the court declare that residents should not be required to pay past or future water bills for undrinkable water. One lawsuit accuses the state of destroying property values.