New pipes are going in. The old lead pipes are on the way out. But according to a list of violations issued to the city of Flint last week by Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the city still has a very long way to go before it will be say it has tackled its contaminated water problems.
"Significant deficiencies" still need to be tackled by the city council, the biggest of which is settling on just where it wants to get its water. And according to DEQ, that ambivalence is holding up a long list of other initiatives, "including infrastructure improvements, establishing water rates, securing outside funding for critical projects, ensuring reliable delivery of drinking water, and recruiting/hiring water department staff."
The issue at hand isn't that there aren't available water sources says the state, but that the council can't agree on how it should provide water to residents.
In June, after the city council failed to approve a long-term contract with its old water provider, Great Lakes Water Authority (where it currently gets its water on a temporary basis), the state sued the city for allegedly endangering the public. The state had initially offered to forgive infrastructure loans if the city will agree to sign a 30-year contract with GLWA, a step that some council members oppose because it would effectively quash local efforts to establish a city-owned water plant and increase water rates to residents.
But temporarily extending the GLWA contract may not solve Flint's fiscal problems either, since it will cost the city an added surcharge, ballooning water rates to $600,000 a month.
Nor will it necessarily lessen problems for residents, some of which faced the threat of tax liens earlier this year for not paying off their delinquent water bills. In May the city threatened to impose liens against some 8,000 homeowners for unpaid water bills that were incurred during the water crisis that halted the use of city tap water. The city council eventually bowed to pressure to put the action on hold, acknowledging that imposing liens could result in thousands losing their homes. The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund pointed out that it was the city's own water management system that provided the contaminated water at the source of the legal debate.
If there is any positive news to come out of Flint, it is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has agreed to write off $21 million in loans it advanced to Flint Mich. to upgrade its water system between 1999 and 2003. The four loans were issued to the city with the state's support under the agency's Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.
“Rebuilding our nation's infrastructure is one of the President's top priorities, and EPA is especially focused on those communities, like Flint, that need it the most,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said. The Drinking Water loan program is a federal-state program in which the state chips in 20 percent of the approved loan. Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledged the federal government's decision, noting that the write-off would help Michigan and "allow for state funding to be spent on high priority infrastructure needs that maintain recent water quality improvements and address public health concerns."
And even though residents only have a few more years before they can count on using their spanking new water infrastructure, experts figure the Flint water crisis is due to be a topic of discussion in council chambers and court rooms for a very long time. A federal appeals court recently ruled that Flint residents do have the power to sue the state government over the impact of the water crisis. The ruling overturns an earlier district court decision that stated that federal water law prevented residents from suing the state, which had appointed emergency water managers to run the Flint water system. Experts have blamed the lack of proper water treatment and the water quality of the Flint water source as the reason for 12 deaths from Legionnaire's Disease and more than lead poisoning of thousands of Flint residents, including approximately 8,000 children.