In Flint, Mayor Works On Rebuilding Pipes — And Trust In The City | KERA News

In Flint, Mayor Works On Rebuilding Pipes — And Trust In The City

Dec 8, 2016
Originally published on December 8, 2016 5:37 pm

It's been nearly a year since Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency in Flint, Mich.

Before she became mayor, the city switched its water supply to the Flint River in a cost-cutting measure. The water wasn't properly treated, which caused corrosion in old pipes — leaching lead and other toxins into the city's tap water. People were afraid to drink or even bathe in the water.

Since then, a lot has happened.

Charges were brought against several Michigan state officials and one Flint city employee for their roles in the water crisis. Researchers say while the tap water is better than it was, people should still use filters on their faucets. The city has replaced hundreds of contaminated lead pipes, but that is not to say the problem is solved.

On Thursday, the U.S. House passed measures directing $170 million in aid for Flint. The bills will now move on to the Senate. Weaver spoke with All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro about the obstacles to ending the water crisis.


Interview Highlights

On the timeline of replacing 29,000 water lines

The answer to that depends on the money, and it's how quickly and how much money we can get to address this issue. Right now we have had in total $27 million and it will get us about 5,000 new lines that have been replaced. Our goal has been to get about 1,000 done before the end of the year. And we're close to having about 600 of them done right now.

On the water the community is using

People have to use the filters and we have to use bottled water. And that's the issue. You know the filters only work in the kitchen — they're not in the bathrooms, so that's why this is still a crisis in the city of Flint. ... We're almost three years into being on bottled and filtered water. So, we need the money, and the more money that comes, the more money that we get, will determine the quickness with which we can do this.

On the progress during the past year

I'm still optimistic. I'm happy for some of the progress we've made. But we know we deserve to have more money and I'm hoping that there's going to be a vote in the next week or so saying that Flint is going to get some more money for infrastructure because Flint still deserves that. ... We've had to do a public information campaign on using these filters and the importance of them.

On rebuilding trust

Rebuilding trust is harder than rebuilding infrastructure. I've been very adamant about letting people know what's going on every step of the way, letting them know it it's good news or bad news. ... Our goal is to be able to drink water right from the tap. We want tap drinkable water. The scientists have told us yes [the filters] are safe, but there's a lot to maintaining them for some people. I've told people you have to do what makes you feel safe.

On Flint's potential

We've got great potential and even in this crisis one of the things we've been able to do is hire our own people. And that's been great as far as the water distribution. ... Putting people to work in their own city. We've had some conversations with some businesses that are looking to move to Flint. That will be another victory for us because people will see that Flint is worth the investment.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been nearly a year since Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency in the city of Flint. Before she became mayor, the city switched its water supply to the Flint River in a cost-cutting measure. The water wasn't properly treated, which caused corrosion in old pipes, leaching lead and other toxins into the city's tap water. People were afraid to drink or even bathe in the water.

Since then, a lot has happened. Charges were brought against two Michigan state officials and one Flint city employee for their roles in the water crisis. And researchers now say that while the tap water is better than it was, people should still use filters on their faucets. The city has replaced hundreds of contaminated lead pipes, but that is not to say the problem is solved.

Mayor Weaver joins me on the phone to talk about the obstacles to fixing this water crisis once and for all. Thanks for coming back.

KAREN WEAVER: Thank you. I'm glad to be back.

SHAPIRO: When we spoke in January, you said that getting filters was just a Band-Aid and the lead pipes were the issue. And now, although hundreds of pipes have been replaced, experts say as many as 29,000 homes have water lines that need to be replaced. How long will that take?

WEAVER: That's exactly right. Well, you know, the answer to that depends on the money. And it's how quickly and how much money we can get to address this issue. Right now we have had let's say in total $27 million. And it will get us about 5,000 new lines that have been replaced. Our goal has been to get about a thousand done before the end of the year, and we're close to having about 600 of them done right now.

SHAPIRO: And in the meantime, are people just using filters on their faucets, or are they still using bottled water to...

WEAVER: Both.

SHAPIRO: ...Cook and bathe and everything?

WEAVER: Both - we have to use both. People have to use the filters, and we have to use bottled water. And that's the issue. And you know, the filters only work in the kitchen. They're not in the bathrooms. So that's why this is still, you know, a crisis in the city of Flint.

SHAPIRO: When we talked almost a year ago, you were very new to the job. You were feeling very optimistic, saying, we are going to fix this problem. Over the course of the year, how has that changed?

WEAVER: Well, I'm still optimistic. I'm still optimistic. Am I happy? I'm happy for some of the progress we've made. But we know we deserve to have more money. And I'm hoping that there's going to be a vote in the next week or so saying that Flint is going to get some more money for infrastructure because Flint still deserves that.

SHAPIRO: When you talk about a vote on infrastructure funding for Flint, you're talking about a vote in Congress where the lawmakers are going to allocate this money.

WEAVER: Correct.

SHAPIRO: When I visited Flint, people talked a lot about broken infrastructure and also about broken trust. So you've described what it's going to take to rebuild the infrastructure. What's it going to take to rebuild the trust?

WEAVER: You know, that's a tough one. And building trust is harder than rebuilding infrastructure. And one of the things that we're doing is - I've been very adamant about letting people know what's going on every step of the way, letting them know if it's good news or bad news.

But the other thing we've had to put in place is as we're doing the water testing, we have a number of experts doing this water testing, hoping that their results corroborate each other's result so people can say, OK, four of them got these same results; we can move on. You know, we believe that.

SHAPIRO: Now, the last time we talked back in January, you said you were really excited for the potential that Flint had and that you were looking forward to coming back on this program and taking a victory lap.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: And I said, when's that going to be? And you said you didn't know.

WEAVER: I don't know. But we do - we've got great potential. And even in this crisis, one of the things we've been able to do is hire our own people. And that's been great as far as, you know, with the water distribution and...

SHAPIRO: You mean putting people to work fixing the problem in their own city.

WEAVER: Putting people to work in their own city. You've got it. And that's been something really, really good. We've had some conversations with some businesses that are looking to move to Flint. That will be another victory for us because people will see that Flint is worth the investment.

So we're putting some things in place to let people know that we're not going down. We're going to rise up, and it's going to take a while because all of the things - it was almost like the perfect storm of what happened to Flint in some of these other instances. And so it's been an opportunity for us to really be able to say, let's look at some things we can do. How can we move Flint forward? So that's what we're doing.

SHAPIRO: Well, Karen Weaver, we haven't forgotten about you. We will keep checking back in, and hopefully you'll take that victory lap sometime soon.

WEAVER: I'm going to. I'm going to. And I want to have the interview with you when I do.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Mayor Karen Weaver of Flint, Mich., thank you so much.

WEAVER: OK, thank you.

SHAPIRO: And here's the status of that congressional vote Karen Weaver referred to. The House of Representatives passed two bills earlier today directing $170 million in aid for Flint. The bills will now move on to the Senate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.