BENTON HARBOUR, MI – Water entering Camillia Goins’ home on Buss Avenue in Benton Harbor was coming from the main, but not the one outside her front door.
Instead, its water traveled sideways through a galvanized pipe under several neighboring lots from a fire hydrant on the corner of South Winans Street – an unexpected complication crews discovered while digging several large trenches and holes in his front yard and the neighboring vacant lot.
“They came a few days ago and couldn’t find the water shutoff valve,” Goins said, watching workers tear up his yard before Jan. 31. “When I moved here they tried to turn my water on and it was in the wrong place – they couldn’t get it out here in front of the house.
“They said he was redirected elsewhere.”
It’s been a noisy past week for residents of Buss Avenue as crews tore up concrete and dirt with jackhammers and diggers, searching for lead and galvanized water pipes and replacing them with pipes copper in a $500,000 contract won last fall by Meeks Contracting, a local company owned by the son of a county commissioner.
Meeks won the job Sept. 21, two weeks before the city’s tap water problems swept into the national spotlight when state officials began trucking in bottled water. Benton Harbor Municipal Commission approved a contract to replace 100 lead service lines with part of a $5.6 million grant awarded in 2020 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The first pipes came out Nov. 9, when Governor Gretchen Whitmer pledged to see all those lead lines in Benton Harbor dug up and replaced within 18 months, an effort expected to cost more than $30 million and who should benefit. federal funding for the infrastructure program.
Meeks continued to work through the winter, battling snow and cold in a slow but steady effort to solve the problem. The blizzard that hit last week slowed progress but only halted work for a day and a half.
In the cold, “everything takes a little longer,” said team leader David Frizzell.
“You’ve got pipe bursts, stuff freezing, you don’t want to work,” Frizzell said. “You work with water. Everything is more slippery. I fell last week. The road was icy.
The crew has a box truck with a heater inside for breaks. Because metal becomes brittle as temperatures drop, crews generally didn’t work in temperatures below 20 degrees, Frizzell said. But, “if it reaches a certain temperature, it just depends on what we’ve done.”
Finding unexpected obstacles such as odd pipe routing can delay work. Crews try to hit three houses a day, but tend to hit one or two on average.
For the Goins house, crews had to replace the water stop value known as the curb box in addition to running a new copper water pipe through the property.
John Hodge, a supervisor on the Meeks team, called it interesting work; essentially unearthing and reversing the decisions of past generations – and correcting their mistakes.
“You might see things you would never see,” Hodge said, recounting a move to Colfax and Parker avenues where pipes bringing water to four homes were all interconnected.
“Beneath the ground is like a loop of leaden cobwebs.”
Meeks has replaced about 40 lines since November. About 90 percent of all lead line work remains in Benton Harbor, according to city engineering consultant Abonmarche, which maintains a online dashboard showing progress. About 3,880 of the total 4,322 “suspected” problematic lines have yet to be replaced or verified as lead-free.
The malleable toxic metal has long been used in plumbing to connect homes to the municipal grid. It is commonly found in older homes in Michigan and beyond. In 1986, Congress banned lead service lines, but allowed existing buried lines to continue.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin that experts say has no safe exposure level. High amounts can cause brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems. Exposure has also been linked to lower IQ, reduced attention span and performance in school children.
In Lansing, lawmakers are considering a spending bill that would spend $1 billion on replacing plumb lines across Michigan — which would cover less than half of the total problem. Under Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule, revised in the wake of Flint and considered the strongest in the nation, water utilities have until 2041 to replace all lead service lines.
Jason Marquardt, principal engineer at Abonmarche, said Benton Harbor had planned to replace around 900 lead pipes over the next four years as part of a state requirement to speed up pipe replacement after the Tap water began testing for high lead in 2018. About 25 lines were replaced in 2020 through state revolving loans. Then, in October, the city’s three-year-old lead crisis erupted and public outcry accelerated that timeline.
“This is a work in progress,” Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said. “One of the game changers was the resources when the governor came down and offered $20 million – that changed everything.”
Funding to cover replacements at Benton Harbor was cobbled together from federal grants and state loans. The city needs about an additional $11 million to complete the project and the rest will likely come from a supplemental water infrastructure appropriation bill that serves as a vehicle for distributing federal infrastructure and development funds. recovery in the event of a pandemic.
“One of the things we don’t want to do is underestimate the cost of completion, because as we replace these service lines, contractors ‘probe’ to see if there are any ‘other lines that need to be addressed,’ Muhammad said.
“There is a period of discovery that happens at the same time as the replacement.”
Full completion by April 2023 is aggressive but doable, Marquardt said – although he is unconcerned about the potential for delays due to the need for signed access clearance forms before contractors can start building. dig at an address.
Marquardt said he expects “right of entry” form submissions to increase once entrepreneurs become more visible on a regular basis in the community. This week, the city commission decided to force the issue by approve potential fines, jail time, or community service for homeowners who do not replace lead pipes at their own expense or participate in the Free Town program.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of work,” Marquardt said. “I think it’s doable if they can make sure the materials keep coming and there’s no shortage.”
“I’m pretty positive about it right now.”
Work is expected to ramp up in March once five new companies selected by the city commission in January begin excavations in 12 work zones across the city.
At a special meeting on January 25, the city finalized $33.2 million in contracts with Hoffman Bros. of Battle Creek, Five Star Energy Services of Wisconsin, SWT Excavating of Galesburg, B and Z Company of Benton Harbor and Selge Construction Co. of Niles.
Businesses have an incentive to work quickly, Marquardt said. There are early completion bonuses of up to $100,000 per area built into the contracts.
“The trick is to get these guys started in time,” he said.
In the meantime, state officials said deliveries and distribution of bottled water around Benton Harbor will continue until all lead pipes in the city are replaced.
“There are no plans to end the free distribution of bottled water while the pipes are being replaced across the city,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Elizabeth Hertel said this week ( MDHHS).
In December, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) said six-month test results showed a reduction in lead levels in the city’s tap water, bringing Benton Harbor even with the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. (ppb).
The agency said previous sampling cycles had shown consistently high results between 22 and 32 ppb over the past three years in 90th percentile testing under Michigan’s Revised Lead and Copper Rule. EGLE attributed the decline to the impact of corrosion inhibitors on the city’s beleaguered water plant, which is under a federal order to fix treatment outages.
The EPA is expected to release this month the final results of a study on the effectiveness of tap water filters that state and county health departments began distributing in 2019.
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