Flint, Mich.'s water crisis demonstrates the problem—and the potential—for President Joe Biden as he proposes replacing lead drinking water service lines across America as part of his massive infrastructure plan.
Flint is on track to be the third city in the country to undergo complete lead drinking water pipe replacement, following Madison, Wis., and Lansing, Mich. And with federal assistance, Flint stands to replace the lines in roughly half as many years that the projects took in the other cities.
But when the ink dries on the final settlement agreements, the Flint water crisis will have cost Michigan more than $1 billion and will have taken up more than $100 million in federal grants and revolving loans. It’s a situation both good and bad, that the Biden administration should heed as it pushes a $45 billion fund proposal for lead pipe replacement as part of its $2.25 trillion infrastructure blueprint, advocates say.
“This Biden proposal learns the lessons of Flint,” Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the physician who first found high levels of lead in Flint children, said in an interview. “We know the science of lead. We’ve known for centuries that lead is a poison. Yet, across our country, lead is like the straw through which we’re getting drinking water.”
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), whose district includes Flint, agreed in endorsing Biden’s proposal.
“There are many lessons from the Flint water crisis, including that we must get more serious about rebuilding our outdated infrastructure,” Kildee said in a statement.
‘Critical’ Investment Needed
The City of Flint earlier this month announced it was nearing completion, having excavated more than 26,800 service lines, and more than 9,000 were lead or galvanized steel.
This accomplishment serves as a demonstration project for how federal, state and local government could team up to tackle this issue without spiking water rates, John LaMacchia, a lobbyist for the Michigan Municipal League, said in an interview.
However, Biden’s $45 billion plan won’t be enough to rip up and replace all residential lines. Michigan, which has roughly 3% of the county’s population, needs roughly $2.5 billion, more than 5.5% of Biden’s proposed funds.
Without federal and state aid, costs are passed to ratepayers. Bills could rise 50% to fund replacements, and communities big and small would feel the squeeze.
“Systematic disinvestment in some places has put them on the brink, and we should have never been there in the first place,” he said. “The lesson that we truly need to learn here is that if we want to have great places, we need to invest in them, and that investment will pay dividends down the line, and help protect that public safety that’s critical to our communities.”
Flint as a Warning
What started innocently enough—a state-imposed emergency manager in 2014 trying to course-correct broke Flint’s financial future—produced an ill-fated attempt to save sparse city revenue by switching from Detroit-area drinking water to a local regional alternative.
That regional water supplier wasn’t immediately available, however, so the penny-pinching city and state leaders opted for temporary use of Flint River water, which corroded the residents’ lead pipes and exposed a majority-Black city of roughly 100,000 people to lead.
Lead exposure can contribute to disease in later life, including high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, gout, early dementia and Alzheimer’s, as well as cognitive and behavioral impairments in children.
This exposure created immense costs: the outcry from Flint spurred a new wave of environment activism, contributed to Republican defeats in state-wide political contests, and led Michigan to enact one of the country’s stiffest “lead and copper” rules, requiring municipalities to replace lead services lines within 20 years.
Transferring these hard-earned lessons to federal policy—funding grants and loans to replace the estimated 10 million lead service lines leading to American homes—could save an immense amount of money and suffering, Hanna-Attisha said.
“If we truly dig up pipes and eliminate lead exposure before a child is exposed, we have the potential to save $80 billion a year because you’re not paying for things like special education, health care costs, mental health care costs and criminal justice costs, and you increase economic productivity when we prevent this exposure,” she said.