Will Michigan's tough lead plan win Flint residents' trust?

Gov. Rick Snyder unveiled a plan on Friday that includes the country's strictest standard for testing lead, recommends replacing all pipes within a decade, and requires water testing in schools.

Carlos Osorio/ AP/ File
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder talks to the media in Flint in this February 2016 file photo. On Friday, April 15, the Governor unveiled a plan to implement the toughest lead-testing rules in the nation as the city combats an ongoing water crisis.

Michigan would have the toughest rules in the nation for testing lead levels in its water supply under a sweeping plan unveiled Friday by Gov. Rick Snyder.

"Michigan will lead the rest of the country in terms of addressing lead as a problem," Snyder said as he introduced the plan before a meeting of the Flint Interagency Coordinating Committee at the University of Michigan's Flint campus, the Detroit Free Press reports.

The plan comes in the wake of months of mounting debate and calls for the governor's resignation as the city of Flint faced a crisis over lead-tainted water that sickened children and forced families to switch to using bottled water.

Currently, federal rules require water systems to take action if lead concentrations are above 15 parts per billion in more than 10 percent of sampled tap water sources. Under Snyder's plan, which is still in discussion stages, Michigan would move to a limit of 10 parts per billion by 2020.

The governor's plan, drafted in collaboration with water experts, also recommends the replacement of all lead service pipes within the next ten years. Previously, in late January, he had said the full replacement of Flint's pipes was not imminent.

It would further require utilities to test lead levels in all schools and daycare centers, not just houses. Prospective homebuyers would also be notified of lead pipes in a house under a mandatory provision.

But despite the efforts, it's unclear if this plan will help rebuild residents' trust in government, shattered by more than a year of inaction.

"It's extremely frustrating," Desiree Duell, a local activist, told the Christian Science Monitor during a break in a Congressional hearing on the crisis in March. 

"Governor Snyder is making it seem like the response has been effective, and it's been extremely ineffective," she added, noting that she and other unpaid activists had been helping by organizing local families, passing out Spanish-language literature to residents, and distributing water.

As the Monitor's Jessica Mendoza reported in February, the water crisis became one of many issues troubling the once-booming industrial city, including poverty, violence and local mismanagement:

But the disaster, and the resulting loss of public trust, could also have a huge socioeconomic impact – one that other cities ought to learn from, says Glen Daigger, a professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The unstable situation in Flint could easily lead real estate prices to drop and new businesses to balk at establishing a presence in the city – potentially making it even harder for Flint to recover financially, he says…

"Quite frankly, confidence has to be restored ... and restoring confidence has to be founded in fact, so that this community can pick up and start moving forward from a social and economic perspective," he adds.

While residents first noted the water's smell and taste soon after Flint switched its water source from Detroit's system to the Flint River in April 2014, officials did not declare a public health emergency until October 2015, after Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards found lead levels far above federal guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency.

After months of defending the system, Gov. Snyder apologized to residents in January, during his State of the State speech.

In Flint, Mayor Karen Weaver has been working with the governor to create a plan to provide subsidies to residents to encourage them to use more water, in order to flush the system of contaminants and coat pipes with anti-corrosion chemicals, the Detroit News reports.

So far the state has provided $30 million in funding to help residents pay their bills, while encouraging residents to pay the sewer portion of their water bills. But the mayor has also pushed for more funding.

"Residents should not have to pay for that," she told the paper.  "I'm a resident, too, and we should not have to incur that expense, so we don't want to roll that program out until we have all of those things lined up."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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