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Flint Can Learn From Lansing's Lead Line Trial And Error


The water crisis in Flint, Mich. transfixed much of the country and made international headlines. There are now efforts underway to fix the problem. The city is embarking on an ambitious plan to tear out all the underground pipes that leached dangerous levels of lead into the drinking water. Flint is looking just 60 miles west for tips about how to do the work quickly, safely and cheaply.

Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio reports.

SARAH HULETT, BYLINE: Lansing, Mich. is about an hour's drive from Flint. Lead in the drinking water is no longer a problem here in large part because it's almost done replacing all 14,000 underground lead pipes in its water distribution system. In the 12 years it's been doing this work, Lansing's learned a lot.

DICK PEFFLEY: When used to do this, you would take a backhoe and dig a hole in the center of the road - or where the water main is - and then trench all the way to the customer's basement.

HULETT: That's Dick Peffley. He's the general manager of the Lansing Board of Water and Light. He says the way they were doing things meant tearing out sidewalks and curbs and lawns.

PEFFLEY: And so early on, we decided that that was going to be very expensive and a slow process. It took about eight to nine hours to do one house.

HULETT: So they retooled their process.


HULETT: Now, a jackhammer punches a hole in the street near where Peffley's standing. Then the crew takes a new copper line into the house, removes the water meter, snakes a cable through the old lead line and connects it to the new copper line.

PEFFLEY: And then a backhoe out there grabs that cable and pulls it backwards. And as it does that, it's pulling the lead service out from under the ground and a new copper service in. And then we just have to hook it up to the water main and put a water meter back in. So it's that simple, takes, on a good day, four hours.

VIRG BERNERO: From what we can tell, we're the best in the country.

HULETT: This is Virg Bernero, Lansing's modest mayor.

BERNERO: We've cut the cost by a half or two-thirds. We've cut the time by a half or two-thirds. And we're happy to share that. We're sharing a whole lot of technical expertise with Mayor Weaver.

HULETT: That's Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who hopes that Flint can replace as many as 15,000 lead lines in as little as one year. It's an ambitious plan, but she's got an ally in Mayor Bernero.

BERNERO: When we began this, the attitude toward lead underground was don't ask, don't tell.

HULETT: Bernero raised the alarm about lead in water more than a decade ago. A lead contamination crisis in Washington, D.C. was in the headlines and Bernero, then a state lawmaker, wanted to tighten up the water testing and oversight protocols. In Washington and in lots of other cities, loopholes and lax oversight made it easy for water systems to conceal high lead levels. But in 2004, Bernero's proposals landed with a thud.

BERNERO: The entire environmental establishment and water establishment was vested in basically ignoring the problem. And it was sort of out of sight, out of mind. Never mind what's under the ground.

HULETT: But as Mayor Bernero did not ignore what was underground, he got the city's utility to agree to spend $42 million to replace all its lead pipes. By next summer, after 13 years of work, Lansing expects it won't have a single lead service line left, but -

BERNERO: In Flint, they don't have the luxury of time. They have a crisis. They have a real crisis, and they have a crisis in confidence.

HULETT: So Lansing is offering Flint training and technical expertise. The mayor there calls it Fast Start, but it's been anything but. Flint has stumbled out of the gate, planning to replace 30 lead lines last month but only completing 14.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Hulett became Michigan Radio's assistant news director in August 2011. For five years she was the station's Detroit reporter, and contributed to several reporting projects that won state and national awards.