Flint water cost to rise as state ends subsidy

In Flint, Michigan, residents still must use a filter to drink tap water, but the cost of that water will soon increase. The state is ending a subsidy program that reduced customers’ water bills after Flint's water was contaminated with lead in 2014. Michigan Radio reporter Steve Carmody joins Hari Sreenivasan from Flint to discuss.

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    Residents of Flint, Michigan, an hour outside Detroit, are about to be charged more money for tap water. The state, which made a decision in 2014 that caused Flint's water supply to be contaminated with lead, is ending a subsidy program that reduced customers' water bills. The state says Flint's water now meets federal water quality standards, but many residents feel it's still unsafe.

    Joining me now to discuss the issue via Skype from Midland is Michigan Radio reporter Steve Carmody.


    Steve, is the water in Flint safe to drink? The water in Flint is safer than what it had been. Initially, more than a year ago when lead testing was done, levels of more than — in the hundreds of parts per billion of lead were being detected in flint water. Now, the level is below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. So, it is safer. But it is still not pure water. It still has some lead in it. SREENIVASAN: OK. So, the levels are getting better and that's kind of good enough to pass the national threshold, right? So what are the domino effects here? If people are too poor, perhaps, to pay their water bill or the subsidy has really made up for that gap, what happens if they miss a payment? CARMODY: Well, that's a good question. At this point, the city has not decided whether they will begin to shut off people who are behind on their payments. Right now, 55 percent of Flint residential water customers are current on their water bills. That's after a year of having the state subsidize 65 percent of their water bill.


    Now once that 100 percent takes effect that they will start seeing beginning in their April water bills, the expectation is, is that fewer people will be current on their water bills, either because they don't have enough money to pay very high water bills or because they just don't want to pay for water they don't trust. At that point, the city's going to have to make a decision whether they're going to push ahead with shutting people off or try to find a different solution. And then the irony is, is that if you don't have enough revenue coming in, you don't have the money to fix the pipes that you need.


    Exactly. The city is facing a couple of cost issues here. They have to replace pipes. They're getting some help from the federal government with that. They also have to pay for water from Detroit, which is their current water source, which is rather expensive.

    And if people are no longer paying their water bills, the state is no longer happen helping them and the city is no longer receiving a separate subsidy to pay for Detroit water, it's going to put the city's budget into a big squeeze.


    What's the future time line for how people can expect to get Flint water back to normal? I mean, they want to switch back off of Detroit water and back to Lake Huron, right?


    Yes. This is going to take several years. A couple of things have to take place. Number one, they have to replace the lead service line, the pipes that connect homes to city water mains. Those have been a primary source of lead leeching into water. That's going to take several years for the city to accomplish.

    At the same time, the city's water plan has to be upgraded so that it can begin treating water from Lake Huron for the new pipeline that's been built. But in order to get all the FDA or, pardon, all the EPA approvals and all approvals from the state, it's going to take several years. So, it will probably be past 2020 before that actually happens.


    All right. Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody joining us via Skype from Midland — thanks so much.


    My pleasure.

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