FLINT, Mich. – By the time the hard-hatted workers, tripod-toting journalists and glad-handing politicians finally left his front yard on Friday afternoon, all Barry Richardson II wanted to do was take a long, hot shower.
Remarkably, for the first time in more than a year, the 28-year-old homeowner could do so without fear. His modest saltbox house, like most in this stricken city, is crowded with plastic bottles from which he, his pregnant fiancée and his 8-year-old daughter have relied on clean water for drinking and bathing.
Now Richardson – and so far in Flint only Richardson – has less to fear. On Thursday afternoon he learned that his home would be one of 30 to get the lead water service line replaced with copper as part of Mayor Karen Weaver’s Fast Start Project. Not 24 hours later, jackhammers opened a trench in the asphalt in front of his curb and cracked open the cement encasing the lines in his basement. And then, with the world looking on, a backhoe refracted a winch that pulled the lead pipe from the ground. Moments later, out of the same hole emerged a shiny copper line to be affixed to a valve in the ground.
“We ain’t gotta worry about the lead poisoning us no more,” said a nervous Richardson bedecked in a Monster energy drink hat and hoodie, photos of his daughter dangling from a neck chain. “It’s amazing they picked me.”
The moment was a major triumph for Weaver, a political neophyte elected four months ago amid widespread anger that City Hall wasn’t advocating forcefully enough to state and national officials about the dangerous levels of lead in the city’s drinking water. Weaver vowed in January that old pipes that were so corroded by 18 months of carrying polluted water from the Flint River would be replaced within 30 days.
“It took a little bit longer than that,” said retired National Guard Brig. Gen. Michael C. H. McDaniel, appointed by Weaver to lead the Flint Action and Sustainability Team, or FAST. “But here we are. We’ve gotten started.”
The road remains long and full of potholes for this city of 100,000 which has more than 8,000 lead service lines to be replaced. The city has enough money to replace one line a day for 30 days and then another 200 in the subsequent months, with houses being selected based on the lead levels in the water and who lives in them. That is, lead poisoning is most dangerous to young children, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems. Richardson’s house, for instance, was chosen because the water tested persistently high for lead despite using a faucet-mounted filter and even after weeks of trying to chemically coat the inner lining of the corroded pipes to prevent lead leaching.
Yet Weaver says they are well short of the $55 million needed to replace all of Flint’s lead pipes. Earlier this week, Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R) said he would not bring any further supplemental funding for Flint — including more than $100 million additional Flint relief requested by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) — to the floor until October when it could be accounted for in the regular budget.
The Legislature has approved $37 million so far, and Snyder has apologized for his administration’s failure to heed community concerns when alarms were raised about bad tasting water and a host of health problems. Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014 while under the management of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn’t respond to evidence of elevated lead levels in Flint children until late last year.
The replacement of Richardson’s pipes came at an opportune moment from a public relations standpoint because the international media is in Michigan for presidential debates ahead of Tuesday’s primaries. Democratic candidates, former secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, are set to face off on Sunday in Flint, and the Republicans held their debate in Detroit on Thursday night.
Weaver, a Democrat, said the differences between the candidates’ responses to the crisis have been telling. Earlier Friday, she appeared with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and members of the Congressional Black Caucus including Rep. Maxine Waters at a community meeting. Clinton has visited as has her daughter, Chelsea, and she has has referenced Flint routinely for two months as an example of failed Republican leadership. Weaver is now appearing in an ad endorsing Clinton for the presidency. Sanders opened a campaign office in Flint, visited last week and features his dismay over the situation in TV commercials running statewide.
By contrast, Fox News moderator Bret Baier at the GOP debate in Detroit asked Florida Sen. Marco Rubio why the Republican slate has been silent about the problem. Rubio bristled that he and his opponents have talked about it and pivoted to make his answer about Democratic failings.
“The Democrats have turned this into a partisan issue, as if somehow Republicans woke up one morning and decided, ‘Oh, it’s a good idea to poison some kids with lead,’ ” Rubio said. “It’s absurd. It’s outrageous. All of us are outraged by what happened and we should work together to solve it and there and there is an appropriate role for government to play at the federal level in helping local communities to respond to a catastrophe of this kind.”
No other candidates were asked about Flint, and only billionaire Donald Trump made a passing reference to it in discussing the need for improved infrastructure.
Weaver wondered when Rubio and the others had discussed the city’s plight given that none of the GOP hopefuls had reached out or visited. What’s more, she said she was dismayed that Rubio’s remarks were the extent of the discussion.
“It was one question, one answer,” she said. “For them to be in Michigan, they should at least have talked about this issue a little bit more. You’d think they’d be talking about this issue anyway.”
Still, for Weaver, Friday was a celebratory day, complete with an unusual photo opportunity where she, workers and other leaders mugged while grabbing on to a length of pipe – sort of a reverse of the traditional ceremonial groundbreaking pictures that politicians take.
Richardson’s corner drew neighbors and local onlookers, too. April Eubanks, 31, came from a few miles away with her five children under age 6 to watch. One of her sons tested high for lead in the blood and several of the kids have had rashes from contact with the water, she said. She admitted she wished it was her house getting the new pipes, but the fact that anybody’s lines were being replaced was good news to her.
“I’m ecstatic,” Eubanks said. “I honestly thought this day would never come.”