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Days after Scripps News investigation, work quietly resumes in Flint

The move comes less than a week after Scripps News was first to report that the city had quietly stopped the project in December with no plans to restart.
Toxic lead pipes
Posted at 4:51 PM, May 03, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-03 17:51:23-04

Just as quietly as work stopped in Flint four months ago, efforts to replace toxic pipes that carry drinking water into residents’ homes has resumed after a Scripps News investigation. The city told Scripps News Thursday its contractor – Rowe Professional Services – is leading the effort, but is doing so without a contract and without pay.

"They have no promise of compensation for this work,” City of Flint spokesperson Catie O’Neill said of its contractor. “They are literally working for free without a contract.”

Efforts to get comment from Rowe on their decision to work for free were unsuccessful.

But O’Neill said the city has already given Rowe “a great deal of money under contract,” saying “they have been our partners in this work." The company is headquartered in Flint and has been leading the project since 2019.

The move comes less than a week after Scripps News was first to report that, despite being under a federal contempt order for failing to finish the job of removing lead from residents drinking water, the city had quietly stopped the project in December with no plans to restart. We revealed the city had already spent all but $1.5 million of some $100 million in federal and state funds set aside for the project and its contract with Rowe had expired late last year.

The work started again Tuesday, the city said, but was focused only on replacing the pipes at the 31 homes mandated by court order — a fraction of the hundreds of toxic service lines that still connect Flint homes to drinking water all these years later.

The City of Flint was court-ordered to identify and replace all active lead and galvanized steel service lines by 2020. The city says it has done almost all it’s required to do to attempt to replace the toxic lines, leaving just 31 homes left to meet the terms of the order.

Person in a medical mask and gloves holds up a bottle of water to check it for clarity

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But Scripps News found there are still hundreds more known lead service lines and over a thousand addresses that still have not been inspected. The city maintains it hasn’t had cooperation from residents to do the work, though we found ongoing issues with the city’s own system of communicating with residents about this project. We also spoke directly to residents who say they have been trying to get the city to come to their property and do the work for years.

The director of the state office charged with regulating Flint’s water system said completing only part of the work wouldn’t be enough.

"They're not going to get a pass on getting the rest of these lead service lines out,” Eric Oswald, director of the Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division in the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy said.

“They have to remove all lead service lines in the city: whether somebody consents to it or doesn't consent to it — whether it's a home, whether it's a business — those all have to be removed,” Oswald told Scripps News on Thursday.

When the crisis began in 2014, the City of Flint was in a financial state of emergency that prompted city and state officials to switch the source of its drinking water in an attempt to save money. Old pipes began corroding and leaching lead into the water and through people’s faucets. Residents were at first told the water was safe and then months later officials admitted it was a mistake — but only after children were found to be poisoned with lead. Damage from lead is irreversible and poses an especially significant threat to children's developing brains.

Still, all these years later, there are corroded pipes in Flint that have not been replaced. The city told Scripps News it’s committed to doing the rest of the work as soon as it can find more money.

“When we have funding, we will go back to every resident that wants their line checked,” a city spokesperson said Thursday.

But when that will happen is anyone’s guess.

Neither federal, state, nor city officials could tell Scripps News where the money will come from, and when that money will get to Flint.

Flint water tower.

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Scripps News data reporter Amy Fan contributed to this story.

Through a series of reports since last May, Scripps News Investigates has found a decade later, the water crisis in Flint still isn’t over.

We'll be following this story. Email investigative producer Carrie.Cochran@Scripps.com with questions or tips.