DETROIT – As worries about lead in the water spreads across Metro Detroit, the race is on to remove hundreds of miles of dangerous and potentially poisonous pipeline.
There’s still one very big question: Who is going to pay for it all? There are hundreds of thousands of lines that have lead in them.
Meet Tannicia Henry and her grandson
Tannicia Henry spoke with Local 4 as she watched her grandson play on the swings at a park on Detroit’s east side.
“When we leave here, he instantly will go and wash his hands. He will instantly go and change those clothes,” she said.
Henry has been living with lead her whole life. So has her 9-year-old grandson, Lloyd.
“His hair stopped growing and I was like, ‘Well, why is your hair not growing?’ It, like, stopped for a whole year,” Henry said.
Her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses as she recounted the day she realized something was wrong with her grandson. He was a toddler at the time.
“I told him to go take a bath and his feet were dark. I mean, like he had been playing in the dirt and the top of his feet were dark,” Henry said.
Lloyd was tested for lead when he was 3 years old. The levels of lead in his blood were staggering.
“An acceptable level is six and under,” Henry said. “He was a 28.”
The effects will be with him for the rest of his life.
“He’s considered a special needs child, but he has some learning issues. He has some issues comprehending and you know he learns a little slower than most,” Henry said.
Study: 3 out of 4 children in Michigan have detectable levels of lead
Lloyd isn’t alone. According to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services data -- on average, over the last 10 years, 1,984 children in Detroit under the age of 6 were diagnosed with elevated levels of lead in their blood each year.
Statewide, things don’t get better. A new study out this year from the Journal of Pediatrics shows 3 out of 4 kids in Michigan had detectable levels of lead in their blood. That’s the third most nationwide. Under CDC guidelines, no amount of lead is safe.
Just up the road from the park where Lloyd was playing, is Hamtramck. That’s where another crisis of leaded water is still unfolding. According to the state, the small city has 589 known lead lines and another 4,600 that are likely lead.
“Since when do they get different water than we do? What makes anyone think that the same water that Hamtramck is getting we’re not getting?” Henry said.
According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, the state has more than 331,000 lines that are known to be or likely to be lead pipes -- and another 314,000 lines that the state doesn’t know enough about. In Detroit there are nearly 80,000 known or likely lead lines with another 29,000 the state isn’t sure about.
“That right there? And something that I am so worried about?” Henry said. “Number one, we don’t drink the water.”
What are government officials doing?
In 2018, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer launched the MI Clean Water Plan, which set aside $207 million for clean drinking water and lead line removal in the wake of the Flint water crisis. This week, she asked for another $100 million for the same removal projects. Alongside the Governor’s request, Republicans in Lansing have also put up a plan that would set aside $600 million. But neither amount comes nowhere near what experts say is needed to remove and replace lead lines.
Getting federal help has been difficult too. Funding for lead lines in the newly passed infrastructure bill wa slashed from $45 billion to $15 billion for all the lead in the country. The state alos still has about $6.5 billion left from the American Rescue Plan, much of it meant for infrastructure.
The same year as Whitmer’s plan, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality said the cost would be nearly $500 million. But the Michigan Municipal League, which advocates for towns and cities, found the true cost was somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 billion. Since then costs have risen.
“There’s no question that that cost has gone up,” John LaMachhia, with the MML, said. “The original estimate of $5,000, while may be seen in some places, other places are seeing $8,000, $10,000 or more cost per line.”
2021 marks the first year of a 20 year race to remove lead pipes a quick and expensive pace for many cities and towns trying to show Michigan is a safe place to live, while actually making it one.
“Perception sometimes becomes reality and we need to be very careful of that here. So both not only do we need to ensure that we are addressing public health concerns, but we need to show that Michigan from the standpoint of water quality housing from economic development is a competitive and attractive place to be,” Lamacchia said.
Cold comfort for those hoping to solve this problem for future generations.
“We have to pass the world to these children. We have to straighten out this mess that was that was left to us. So we don’t leave it for them,” Henry said. “Be diligent and take care of our children.