News Local/State

In Year Since Water Crisis Began, Flint Struggles In Pipe Replacement Efforts


It's been one year since health officials in Michigan warned people in the city of Flint to stop drinking the tap water after a research team from Virginia Tech discovered elevated lead levels.

To this day, Flint's water is still not safe to drink without a filter. While funding has been scarce to replace corroded pipes, Congress reached a deal this week that could send millions of dollars in aid to Flint.

Lead pipes in Flint were severely corroded over the 18 months the city used water from the Flint River. The water was not treated properly, which allowed lead from the old pipes to contaminate people's drinking water, exposing tens of thousands of residents.

Flint has received $27 million from the state to replace old lines, but progress has been slow. Thousands of pipes still need to be replaced, and the city estimates that fewer than 200 have been fixed so far.

One of the people closely involved in the effort to replace pipes is Laura Sullivan, a Flint native and professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University.

Sullivan, who has worked on clean water projects all over the world, tells NPR's Ari Shapiro that she was wrong to be so optimistic about the situation in Flint when he first met her back in January.

"I've pounded the wall, and I've shed quite a few tears in the time since," Sullivan says. "I really did believe that once the governor acknowledged that there was a problem that he would empower the people of Flint to help solve the problem. ...

"There's just been a lot of dictating to the people of Flint — how the problem will be solved — and not a lot of dialogue with the people of Flint about what's the best way to do that."

Interview Highlights

On why corroded pipes haven't been replaced

Well, you know, at first it was the money getting here, and then once the money got here, there were all kinds of stipulations about who could be hired and what bids they had to submit and just a lot of red tape that Gen. Mike McDaniel, who's been running that whole process, has been trying to be patient about moving forward on.

On why officials couldn't cut through the red tape

Well, one could probably guess that somebody who could have done that didn't have the will to do that because I can tell you the mayor of Flint and Gen. McDaniel and the people of Flint were doing everything they could to make that happen.

And once Gen. McDaniel was able to get through that horrendous bidding process — as soon as we finally got that green light — he began working, and they've quickened the pace every week.

On efforts to create jobs to help in pipe replacement

Well, I can tell you that with the mayor and the plumbers union at the beginning of this, we sat down and made a commitment to working with licensed plumbers on the pipe replacement program, and the plumbers made a commitment to expanding their apprentice program and that has been done.

So there have been collaborations that have resulted in vocational training that will progress into employment. Slowly, yes, there are more opportunities coming into Flint.

On how Flint compares to water issues in underdeveloped countries

Well, it ought to be a lot different. It ought to be just a one-time, oh my gosh, people weren't paying attention, and they were reckless, and now we figured it out, and now we fixed it.

But unfortunately, it feels more and more like a system in parts of the world where the government is corrupt, and there are too many hands that are involved that don't involve the people who are actually living in poverty. And the people who are living in poverty aren't empowered to be part of the solution.