Flint, Mich., again missed its court-approved deadline to complete lead water service line replacement, but city mayor says work is now mostly complete despite delays caused by COVID-19, the city council and a former contractor.

After a pause in work, the project is currently being led by Detroit-based Lakeshore Global Corp. In August, the Flint City Council voted to award a $17.8-million contract to Lakeshore for line excavation, replacement of any lines with lead or galvanized steel and restoration of the excavated area, plus restoration of lines excavated by a previous contractor. Lakeshore was the only firm to bid for the work, city staff told officials during an August council meeting.

Plaintiffs who sued Flint over the lead drinking water crisis that came to national attention in 2014 say city officials have dragged their feet in finishing the work to replace the pipes that leeched lead into drinking water. A settlement in that case originally gave the city a deadline of Nov. 30, 2020 to complete excavation and any necessary replacement and restoration to 31,578 homes. But by the end of 2021, there were still nearly 400 homes on the list for excavation and about 1,400 homes needing outreach, according to court records. In April the two sides in the case agreed to set a new deadline of Sept. 30, 2022. But one of the plaintiffs, Natural Resources Defense Council, says work did not actually resume until earlier this month. 

“There’s people that are very anxious they’re going to be left out, and very angry that they’ve been left out this long,” says Melissa Mays, one of the plaintiffs and operations manager at community advocacy organization Flint Rising. 

In a statement, Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley said the city has completed 27,428 service line excavations. He claimed that the city had achieved 95% completion, though the completed number is closer to 87% of the 31,578 homes identified in the settlement, according to ENR's calculations. Neeley also did not say how many of those excavations resulted in lines that needed to be replaced, and a city spokesperson did not respond to inquiries about the project. City officials have previously said several hundred homeowners have declined excavations. 

“We are encouraging residents to respond to our requests for consent to excavate and replace their water service lines,” Neeley said. “According to the settlement … we can move on from those locations after making a number of attempts to contact the residents. But we don’t want to do that. We’re being very thorough.”

Mays questioned the city’s outreach efforts. When Flint Rising went door to door this summer to encourage Flint homeowners to agree to line replacement, she says many residents claimed they had never heard from the city about the project. Others said they had filled out forms to have their lines replaced, but there was no record of those forms with the city, she adds. 

“Did they go in the shredder? Nobody knows,” Mays says. “And nobody can answer any questions.”

At many homes where excavations were done, a previous contractor never followed up with restoration, which may have also made other homeowners wary of agreeing to allow it on their properties, says Pastor Allen Overton of the Concerned Pastors for Social Action, another of the plaintiffs. During a city council meeting in August, officials said there are more than 8,000 properties waiting on restoration following excavation.

“There’s homes with cement still torn up in their driveways, streets are torn up because of it, lawns are torn up,” Overton says. “The restoration side has been poor at best.”

The service line replacement project was originally slated to last about three years. But the city stopped work in 2020 amid the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, with city officials saying it was unsafe for crews to enter residents’ homes. The project faced further delays as work on some phases fell behind schedule, and city officials disagreed on the best way to proceed. 

A Lakeshore representative told officials in August that they could not provide an estimate on how long the work will take, because the intensity of needed restoration work varies from property to property.

Flint has received state and federal funding to complete the work. Neeley called the project “a top priority and the best strategy available for ensuring that our city has safe drinking water.