The mayor of Flint, Michigan, threw down the gauntlet Tuesday, announcing she has a $55 million plan to remove lead pipes from the entire city in one year — and "shame on" Gov. Rick Snyder if he doesn't support it.
"We deserve new pipes," Mayor Karen Weaver said.
Snyder has said he has no plans to fund pipe removal and is relying on experts who say the addition of phosphates to the water supply will build up a protective coating on corroded pipes and stop lead from leaching out.
Weaver said that's not good enough. The 99,000 residents of her impoverished city have been "emotionally traumatized" by the water crisis that has poisoned an unknown number of children and will never trust the water as long it flows through lead service lines.
She said the city has a plan to deploy 32 crews who will use a removal method pioneered by a public utility in Lansing, where Snyder's office is located, to pull out 15,000 service lines that run between the main and the meter.
"I cannot imagine he would not support this plan," Weaver said of Snyder. "If he doesn't, shame on him."
Snyder's office had no immediate comment.
Experts including Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards — who has been hired by the city to run water testing — say biofilm from the phosphates should eventually seal the decayed pipes and end the contamination.
But Weaver said that doesn't address the psychological problem.
"We can't wait for that. We don't trust that," she said. "We will never be confident that the biofilm has built back up."
Retired Brig. Gen. Michael McDaniel, who was tapped by Weaver to oversee pipe removal, said the project will begin with high-risk households with children and pregnant women in neighborhoods where the highest levels of lead were found in kids' blood.
"I can't tell you we will put a shovel in the ground tomorrow but I can tell you we can do it very soon," he said. "We want to start immediately."
Weaver said the project needs to be funded by Michigan's Legislature, Congress or some other donor. "We look forward to assistance from any source possible," she said.
"I'm asking Governor Snyder and the state to partner with us on this effort," she said. "We'll let the investigations determine who's to blame for Flint's water crisis, but I'm focused on solving it."
There are separate federal and state investigations into any laws were broken in the crisis, which began with a cost-cutting switch from Detroit's water system to water from the Flint River in April 2014.
After repeated assurances from government officials that the new water was safe to drink, Flint residents finally learned this fall that they had been exposed to lead and Legionnaires' disease and told to rely on filtered or bottled water.