How much longer will Flint, Mich., sit on enough free water pipe to replace every lead service line (LSL) in the city just because it is made of polyethylene?
That will likely depend on the results of an independent evaluation being done by a retired Michigan State University professor who volunteered to do a comparison of PE, cross-linked PE and copper pipes for Flint after JM Eagle offered to donate its PE product.
In the meantime, a growing segment of the pipe industry is waiting and hoping to be heard, and maybe even accepted, at this most opportune moment. In Flint's time of crisis, more eyes and ears than ever before are on the metal-related problems that sent nasty rusty, lead-tainted water into homes and businesses.
Granted, many pressing medical, financial, legal and political issues are on the front burner for the city of 99,000, which has been in a state of emergency for months. Even so, the Plastics Pipe Institute and its members would like everyone to consider that when it comes to infrastructure issues, plastic pipe and fittings never contaminate drinking water with rust, lead and copper.
Wouldn't it be wise and prudent for Flint to openly look at the benefits of PE pipe? Nobody wants to pile onto the to-do list of Flint. But consider how the city responded in May when 10 charitable foundations pledged $125 million targeted to programs for safe water, health needs, intervention for children dealing with the effects of lead exposure, early education and economic revitalization.
When Flint Mayor Karen Weaver thanked the foundations, she said their contributions will make a significant difference in moving the city along the road to recovery. She added that the city is working on “a 21st century approach” to water management.
So why, to date, is Flint only allowing service lines made from copper — a material so ancient it dates back to 2500 BC?
The foundations' donations, while generous, will not directly address the lead-leaching pipes that are at the crux of the crisis. The offer for free PE pipe, from Los Angeles-based JM Eagle CEO Walter Wang, would.
While some may see Wang's offer as a marketing ploy, he does have a philanthropic track record of getting clean water to dozens of communities. He donated at least 350 miles of plastic pipe to Africa to supply 125,000 people with what he considers one of the most essential needs to overcome illness and poverty. One 70-mile leg got water to 13,500 people in 52 villages. He also shipped pipe to Honduras, where it transported potable water from a mountain spring to 5,000 people. Other projects have gone to Thailand.
In Flint, there are roughly 5,000 lead service lines and 10,000 galvanized steel lines vulnerable to corrosion that forms nooks and crannies where lead particles can settle. The composition of another 10,000 lines isn't known because of inaccurate and incomplete city records. With a projected replacement cost of $4,000 per line, Flint and the state and federal governments are looking at an estimated $60 million bill at least.
What if there's a less expensive way to get the job done?
Copper is more than double the cost of PE pipe and at the height of copper prices, it was 10 times as much for the 2-inch pipe, according to PPI members. In addition, when PE pipe can be connected using trenchless techniques, that cuts up to 40 percent from installation costs, the group says. Isn't that worth a full review?
And, what about the Flint residents who may not want to be exposed to the health risks of traditional pipe materials regulated by the Lead and Copper Rule of 1991? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted the rule to put corrosion-control requirements in place in an attempt to stop the metals from leaching into potable water systems.
Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause serious damage to the brain, kidneys and nervous system, especially for young children and pregnant women. Copper can cause stomach and intestinal problems as well as kidney and liver damage.
Flint's drinking water was poisoned with lead for 18 months, starting in April 2014 in a botched cost-saving move. The source of water was redirected from Lake Huron to the Flint River without any corrosion inhibitor added before it was sent through the distribution system. The caustic river water ate away at the protective film that had coated the lead service lines supplying customers. Without the barrier, lead-laden water flowed from the faucets of homes and businesses.
There's no need, however, to be vulnerable to such man-made disasters stemming from metal pipes. How Flint proceeds to modernize its infrastructure could be a watershed moment for the city, the plastic pipe industry and, really, home and businesses owners everywhere. The American Water Works Association projects it will cost $1 trillion over the next 25 years to repair all the parts of the U.S. water distribution system reaching the end of their useful lives. Flint reminds us that for both health and financial reasons, it's time to openly and seriously study all the alternatives available.
Catherine Kavanaugh is a Plastics News staff reporter. Follow her on Twitter @CatherineKav.