FLINT, MI — Mayor Karen Weaver has stopped the practice of using high-pressure water to excavate service lines, saying the technology is allowing some dangerous lines to be left in the ground.
Weaver told members of the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee Friday, June 15, that she was “putting a pause” on hydro-excavation, a process that had been trumpeted as a cheap, effective way to determine which water service lines were composed of lead or galvanized steel and required removal.
The city is attempting to replace those water service lines while leaving others composed of copper in place because they are not considered to have been damaged like galvanized and lead lines were during the city’s water crisis.
Weaver and city officials said the practice of using pressurized water and industrial-strength vacuums to identify which service lines need to be replaced is showing flaws.
“Hydrovacing is missing lead and galvanized service lines …,” the mayor said. “I’m not going to be a part of putting profit over people or having cost savings more important than life-saving. I’m not going to do that …
“We’ve played Russian roulette with some people,” she told FWICC member.
If the cessation is anything but temporary, it will change the substance of Flint’s program for identifying and removing service lines, potentially raising the cost of the program as well as slowing down its pace.
“Recently, there were some concerns brought to the Mayor’s attention surrounding the accuracy of the Hydrovac method,” said Candice Mushatt, a spokeswoman for Weaver. “At this time, the City has chosen to pause using that method. The health and well-being of Flint residents have been Mayor Weaver’s primary concern and will remain as such. Mayor Weaver will not compromise the lives of citizens to save money.”
The mayor made her decision a focal point at the meeting of FWICC, an advisory committee created and appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder.
A worker involved in the service line project appeared at the meeting, saying he was aware of a few dozen instances in which service lines that appeared to be copper after hydro-excavation turned out to have unexposed connections that were not.
“As we dig a little we find there are connections under the ground that are galvanized and lead as well,” he said. “So some that have been identified as copper … truly aren’t.”
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued a statement in response to questions from The Journal, saying it had not been formally given notice that hydro-excavation was on hold in Flint though representatives of the DEQ, including Keith Creagh, director of the Department of Natural Resources, were at the Friday meeting where Weaver made the remarks.
“The DEQ supports and encourages the use of hydro-excavation for service line composition verification and replacement,” DEQ spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in an email.
“When executed properly, the DEQ believes hydro-excavation is an extremely effective and reliable method of identifying service line composition. Proper procedures include sending a technician into the home to verify the composition of the material going into the home is the same as the material identified during the hydro-excavation process at the curb-box,” the statement says.
There were signs before Friday that Weaver had new concerns about excavation with water, and city and state officials have increasingly disagreed about issues related to the water crisis since the state ended distribution of free bottled water here in April.
When the city paid two contractors to excavate 124 homes without hydro-excavation trucks earlier this year, the state questioned the spending, noting the average cost of excavating a home site in the traditional way is $1,660 compared to $228 for a hydro-excavation.
Weaver responded in a letter Friday, telling the DEQ there are health and safety concerns about relying on high-pressure water.
“(The) city does not want to be mandated by the state to use the hydro-excavation method when identifying non-copper service lines,” the letter says.
Weaver said her Flint Action and Sustainability Team has removed more than 6,400 water service lines to date and the city recently estimated that about 14,000 more lines remain in the ground.
Officials have said they expect to complete the replacement work by the end of 2019, using state and federal funds to pay for contractors to do the work.