Plumbers descend on Flint to help with water crisis

    Volunteers load water into plumbers' vans and trucks.
(Tracy Samilton /Michigan Radio)

    Volunteers load water into plumbers' vans and trucks. (Tracy Samilton /Michigan Radio)

    Since October, plumbers with United Association Local 370 in Flint have been volunteering to install filters and faucets to remove lead from people’s tap water.

    On a recent Saturday, the local plumbers got some help – from a small army of more than 300 plumbers driving in from Lansing, Detroit, Saginaw, and other cities across Michigan. 

    They got a rousing, union-pride welcome from Local 370 official Harold Harrington.

    “We did not cause this American tragedy in Flint,” Harrington told the group, “but we certainly can help correct the damage that has been done!”

    Outside the union hall, Genesee County sheriff deputies directed traffic to make sure all the trucks and vans could get in and out safely.

    Call 911, the plumbers were told, if they felt unsafe in a neighborhood or at a particular home, and a sheriff’s deputy would arrive to escort them into the home so they could get the work done.

    Everyone was paired up, given instructions and a list of addresses.

    Jordan Belill and his cousin Tyler got their list, grabbed armloads of donated faucets, filters and test kits, and headed out to the home of Berdie Johnson.


    UA plumbers install a faucet in the home of a flint resident. The old faucet wouldn’t fit to the water filter. (Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio)

    The faucets were donated by Plumbing Manufacturers, International, which represents major companies like Moen, Brasscraft, Speakman, Delta and American Standard. Hodges Supply of Flint also kicked in items.

    Johnson’s home is like practically every house in Flint; she had cases of bottled water stacked in her spotless kitchen.

    She said in a way, it was lucky her water didn’t look right two years ago. That was when the city switched from Detroit water to Flint River water, in order to save money.

    “I was buying the water before we even realized they said all the lead was in it,” said Johnson, “because the water was brown. Looked like Kool-Aid!”

    Jordan Belill found out that Johnson needed a specific kind of faucet that he didn’t have, so she was put on a list for a follow-up visit. In the meantime, he installed a filter in the laundry room.

    “See how that light’s blinking green?” Belill explained. “That tells you that your cartridge is good. It would turn yellow when it’s telling you it’s getting close to being used up and would blink red when it’s time to change it. “

    Next is the home of Loyce Driskell. This time, the faucet replacement was successful. Driskell laughed, because they’re replacing a brand-new custom faucet with one exactly like the one she just got rid of.

    Then she turned serious. She and her family only stopped drinking the water three months ago.

    “We think if we’ve been drinking this water for a couple of years – and that’s how long it’s existed – that these efforts, at this point, I mean the damage is almost done,” she said grimly.

    That may or may not be true for her family. Recent tests appear to show that the water in many homes is under the federal action level for lead.

    But a few homes have so much lead that filters may not work.

    The plumbers visited 1,100 homes by the end of the day. Local 370 will keep on volunteering. Money, too, is starting to come in, including $28 million from the state of Michigan.

    Officials with the agencies responsible for causing the problem in the first place now say they are there for the long haul, and will not abandon Flint until everything possible has been done to repair the damage.

    This story was originally published by Michigan Radio

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