Flint Couple Celebrates Anniversary By Replacing Lead Tainted Pipes

Sep 30, 2016
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It's been a year since health officials in Michigan warned people living in Flint to stop drinking their tap water. The situation has improved a bit. But to this day, Flint's water isn't safe to drink without a filter. Funding to replace corroded pipes has been scarce. This week, Congress reached a deal that would send millions of dollars to help, but it's not coming immediately. Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith brings us the story of one family's challenges and how things are finally changing.

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: This week, Mike and Keri Webber marked a big anniversary.

KERI WEBBER: It's actually a great one, isn't it, babe?

MIKE WEBBER: It is - 25 years.

SMITH: But the last year has been rough on a lot of Flint families. Every member of the Webber family tested positive for lead, even the dogs. Keri's 16-year-old daughter had levels that were considered elevated. She says her daughter struggles with anxiety about the water.

K WEBBER: You know, she's been in counseling for over a year now.

M WEBBER: Yeah, we've started seeing a counselor because of what this has all done to us and how it affects you. It affects just - not just, you know, your organs in your body. It does affect you emotionally, and it affects your mind.

SMITH: Mike was angry, angry his blood pressure was out of control from the lead exposure, angry a resulting eye stroke left him partially blind, angry he couldn't do anything about the high levels of lead in his tap water.

But this week, on the morning of their anniversary, the couple got a wonderful surprise. They watched from the driveway as a four-man crew dug up mounds of dirt in front of the sidewalk. The crews came to replace the old pipe that brings water into the Webber's home. Their oldest daughter, Stephanie, holds up her phone to record the action.

STEPHANIE WEBBER: It's the biggest deal. I can't - I mean, it's - it means the world. It really, truly does.

SMITH: After an hour, the men find what they're looking for. A crew member in a yellow vest climbs down into the 7-foot hole and uncovers the old pipe. It's made of solid lead. Lead pipes like these were severely corroded over the 18 months Flint used water from the Flint River. The water was not treated as it was supposed to be, and that meant lead from old pipes leached into people's drinking water, exposing untold tens of thousands of Flint residents. Stephanie Webber.

S WEBBER: With the struggles my family has been going through, you would think that the state would have put us right at the top of their priority.

SMITH: But it was friends, not the government, who found donors to give money to replace the lead line. So far, the state of Michigan has given Flint $27 million to replace old lines. Mike McDaniel is coordinating the city program to do that.

MIKE MCDANIEL: I wish we - the pace was a little quicker than it's been.

SMITH: As of this week, the government has replaced fewer than 200 pipes. When McDaniel started back in February, he wanted to have 10,000 lines replaced by now. He stands in front of a huge map of Flint. Neighborhoods he hopes to hit soon are highlighted in pink marker.

MCDANIEL: My greatest concern is the funding. I mean, if you look at the pink, that's what we think we can do with the 27 million. That's not enough to do the entire city.

SMITH: This week, leaders in the U.S. Congress struck a deal that could send $100 million or more to Flint. But the details won't get hashed out until after the November election. At least the Webbers won't have to wait that long. Traditionally, couples mark their 25th wedding anniversary with silver. But this year, they're thankful for the shiny new copper pipe they hope will help make their water safe to drink again. For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.