Flint, Mich. — Members of the Copper Development Association Inc. helped the city of Flint acquire enough copper pipe to replace lead-tainted service lines to about 5,000 houses at a discount of about $1 million.
But plastic pipe is still under consideration as the city plans to replace some 20,000 service lines connecting homes to water mains over the next three years at an estimated cost of $106 million.
Flint is on a long road to recovery from the water crisis that caused lead to leach into the system in 2014 and still has residents drinking only filtered or bottled water.
Los Angeles-based JM Eagle, the largest plastics pipe producer in North America, was willing to provide free polyethylene pipe to replace lead service lines (LSLs) to all homes and businesses. However, the donation proposed by CEO Walter Wang to the Flint City Council in February 2016 seemed to languish without any public consideration or comment.
But behind the scenes, officials discussed the merits of PE vs. copper pipe, Flint officials said at the Water Infrastructure Conference, held March 7-9 at the University of Michigan-Flint.
JM Eagle's offer prompted Flint to conduct a secondary-research pipe study that resulted in copper being selected as the replacement material for the service lines. Flint accepted a pipe deal from the Franklin, Ind.-based copper association, which is the marketing and engineering arm of the copper industry.
“They helped the City of Flint acquire nearly 200,000 feet of copper piping for the 2017 phase of the Fast Start program, saving the city and the state approximately $1 million,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver announced. “That's a big help for us to replace the lead-tainted service lines.”
Fast Start is the name of the mayor's initiative to remove LSLs and lead-tainted galvanized iron service lines, starting with houses where water tested highest for lead and where more vulnerable senior citizens and children live. Lead is a neurotoxin that causes premature births, developmental delays, learning difficulties, high blood pressure and joint pains among other problems.
The water crisis started when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city's source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014 without adding the necessary corrosion controls. The caustic river water ate away at a protective coating inside the lead pipes, causing lead to leach into the system.
“We had a significant number of children ending up with higher blood-lead levels and water tests revealed at that time some homes had levels that equated to toxic waste,” Weaver said.
Flint changed back to water delivered from Lake Huron in October 2015, but residents still are told to drink only filtered water.
Flint has replaced about 800 LSLs to date, initially specifying copper based on an informal consensus as it studied other materials. While the city will continue to use copper, there's talk of creating a pilot area using PE pipe donated from a yet-to-be determined manufacturer to replace the service lines to houses on several city blocks.
Local contractors would be trained, possibly with federal funds, to install the lines using a trenchless method.
“With the pipe bursting technology, we can be in and out of there in two weeks,” said Peter Dyke, executive director of the Alliance for PE Pipe, which promotes its members' products as the “responsible infrastructure” choice and says they are leak-free, corrosion resistant, and durable and flexible enough to withstand earthquakes.
Dyke told Plastics News that state officials have directed him to talk to Michael McDaniel, a retired National Guard brigadier general put in charge of the Fast Start program, about a pilot area.