State cuts off funding to Flint for water service line replacement until issues fixed

Crews hydro-excavate in front of a Flint home to determine the composition of its water service line.
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FLINT (WJRT) (11/5/2018) - State regulators won't pay the city of Flint for any more water service line replacements until the city fixes issues with the program, according to a letter.

An attorney from the Michigan Attorney General's Office working on behalf of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality indicates the state will not pay for any water line replacements started after Thursday that involve "unnecessary" 10-foot trenches.

Most of the disagreement stems from changes the city made to the $97 million program, including the end of hydro-excavation and a move away from predictive modeling to prioritize digging projects.

Flint is in the second year of a three-year process to replace all lead and galvanized water service lines in the city after the water crisis. Most of the 28,000 lines need to be investigated to determine their composition.

The state's letter claims Flint Mayor Karen Weaver's ban on hydro-excavation, which involves shooting high pressure water into the ground to dig a 24-inch wide hole with minimal disruption, has vastly driven up the cost.

Instead of hydro-excavation, the city has required crews to dig a 10-foot trench to expose more of the water line. Weaver has contended that hydro-excavation doesn't expose enough of the pipe to determine whether it is made of copper, lead or galvanized metal.

The state says hydro-excavation costs $77 to $228 per residence while the city's trench method costs $1,700 to $1,800 per residence. The agreement paving the way for pipe replacements says only "several inches" of pipe have to be exposed to determine composition, but doesn't mention hydro-excavation or trenches.

In a statement issued Monday, Weaver defended the city's right to choose the excavation method and the decision to prohibit hydro-excavation, because that method led to crews misidentifying seven lead or galvanized water lines as copper.

"If the goal of replacing service lines is to give every resident in the city of Flint safe drinking water that they can trust, then how dare the MDEQ dismiss even one resident who was missed due to hydro-excavation," she said.

Weaver said even one missed lead or galvanized water line should cause concern for the state. She pointed out no state officials would knowingly allow themselves or their families to drink lead-tainted water.

"Feel free to switch living arrangements with one of the residents that you are suggesting (by continuously dismissing the flaws in hydro-excavation) it is OK that their home was misidentified," Weaver said.

She said health and safety should trump any discussions of cost.

“I really am having a hard time believing that the MDEQ does not get that I will not sacrifice any life, not one, for any amount of money," Weaver said.

State regulators also disagreed with the city's move away from predictive modeling to prioritize where digging should occur. The letter says that helped crews find a lead or galvanized pipe 70 percent of the time.

Instead, the letter says the city is digging at every residence and finding a lead or galvanized pipe only 20 percent of the time.

With the two changes the city made, state officials expressed concern in the letter over whether all of the lead and galvanized water pipes can be replaced for the $97 million appropriated for the project under an agreement reached in 2017.

The letter also indicates city officials are not submitting reimbursement requests appropriately, which makes it difficult for regulators to track total costs for each residence. The agreement says the state only has to pay up to $5,000 for pipe replacements at each residence and no more.

State officials say they will pay for all excavations and pipe replacements started before Friday -- even 10-foot trench excavations -- "in the spirit of good faith," the letter says. But the state won't pay for any more "unnecessary" trenches started after Thursday.

Weaver contends the state's decision to cut off reimbursement itself is a violation of the agreement and refused to back down on her position.

"Legally, we are well within our rights to refuse to do hydro-excavation, and we will continue to exercise that right,” she said.

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