Flint, Mich., Is Close to Replacing All of the Lead Pipes

A work group is digging a street in Flint, Michigan, searching for lead water pipes.
Photo: Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

Last week, former Michigan governor Rick Snyder was charged with willful negligence for his role in the Flint water crisis. It was a long way to go: seven years ago, Snyder and several other officials moved Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the nearby Flint River and contaminated the city’s water infrastructure with high levels of lead. It is good to see that there are ramifications for his mismanagement. The big question, however, remains: does Flint finally have clean water?

Nearly. Since 2017, city-wide lead levels have been within the range that the federal government considers safe (although high-risk houses continue to have an elevated level). But nearly four years after a court order required the replacement of lead pipes in Flint’s water system, that work is only nearing completion. According to the city of Flint, as of December 25, 2020, 9,912 lead pipes (and galvanized steel pipes with lead flakes) were removed and replaced. That’s far less than the estimated 18,000 lead pipes in the city’s entire water system – but that number may well, according to Eric Schwartz, a professor at the University of Michigan who helped develop the predictive model the city used to locate all of the lead “Include houses that are currently unoccupied or have no active water accounts”. It may now be just a few hundred lead pipes to replace to meet the terms of the 2017 deal that dwarfed the state for the $ 87 million company.

The predictive model that Schwartz co-developed with machine learning expert Jacob Abernethy (the couple started a company called BlueConduit to expand their work to other cities) has an 80 percent success rate. There are still places that the city knows have lead pipes that have yet to be removed and other places that are highly likely to be there. However, as Flint gets closer and closer to digging out the most recently used lead pipe, the excavations focus on less and less likely places where the pipes are more difficult to find, resulting in a slower end to the race. And even if the last lead pipe is replaced, it is an open question whether the residents of Flint, many of whom there are legitimate suspicions still relying almost entirely on bottled water, will ever trust their water supplies again.

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