As unpredictable spikes in lead continue to plague the water system in Flint, Mich., philanthropic pledges of some $125 million poured in just in recent weeks to help residents through the crisis.
Meanwhile, one donation worth millions of dollars that could help fix the lead-leaching pipes has been in limbo at Flint City Hall for three months and may never get serious consideration.
Back on Feb. 22, Walter Wang, the CEO of JM Eagle, the largest plastic pipe manufacturer in North America, told the Flint City Council his Los Angeles-based company would provide enough free pipe to replace all the residential and commercial lead service lines (LSLs) in the city of 99,000.
However, no action has been taken yet as Flint finalizes the bidding process to widen its scope of LSL replacement from 33 pilot houses that just got new copper lines to 500 households.
That's because Flint is among the U.S. cities that does not allow for the specification of plastic pipe, according to Tony Radoszewski, president of the Plastics Pipe Institute, a trade association based in Dallas.
“Our members have been trying to sell to Flint for years and they can't,” Radoszewski said in a telephone interview. “It's not only the service lines but the water mains as well. So they're using ductile iron in the water mains and copper in the service lines. And copper is not an inexpensive choice.”
Copper pipe is two to three times more expensive than polyethylene pipe, which is what JM Eagle offered Flint, Radoszewski said.
Of the 32,900 service connections, Flint's website says more than 15,000 are “considered” LSLs and the estimated average price to replace each one is $4,000. That puts the total cost at $60 million or more.
Another research team put the number of LSLs at 4,300 but found 13,000 made of an unknown material that could be lead. The state has hired an engineering firm to do an inventory of the service lines connecting homes and businesses to the water mains at the street.
The uncertainty about the number of LSLs makes the value of JM Eagle's offer hard to estimate, but it is surely substantial for a once affluent auto boomtown dogged by Rust Belt woes. Through the years, job losses led to an eroded tax base, then city debt, then emergency financial managers, then rust-colored water from a botched money-saving switch to the Flint River as a water source in 2014.
Poisoned water flowed from city taps for 18 months before a pediatrician sounded alarms about elevated lead levels in newborns and the water source eventually was changed back to Lake Huron. Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause permanent health effects, such as lower IQs, delayed development and behavioral problems.
“You'd think a municipality so devastated over the last 40 years would do everything they can to maximize their financial resources, and yet they are not doing it,” Radoszewski said. “Why is that?”