April 25 (UPI) -- Five years after a switch in water sources exposed tens of thousands in Flint, Mich., to lead-contaminated water, the city hopes to finish inspecting and replacing problematic pipes within the next three months.
Activist groups say they're working to make sure that happens.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and other groups that sued Flint over its handling of the water crisis gave an update on the replacement project this month. Since effort began in 2016, the city has inspected more than 20,000 service lines and replaced 8,000 lead or galvanized pipes.
Eric Schwartz, a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, said there are about 7,000 more lines that still need to be inspected. He expects about 2,500 homes will likely have lead lines that need to be replaced.
"We've had our differences with the city and the state," Michael Steinberg, an ACLU attorney said during the update. "But I think that it's in everybody's interest to make sure that this gets done. And we're going to work together with them to cross the line together."
The water crisis began April 25, 2014, when city officials switched Flint's water supply from treated Lake Huron and Detroit water to raw water from the Flint River, which was then treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant. The new source wasn't sufficiently cleaned and lead leached from the city's old pipes into the water supply, poisoning about 100,000 Flint residents over a period of 17 months. At least 12 people died from Legionnaires' disease linked to the contaminated water, and the city faced dozens of lawsuits that accused officials of recklessness and negligence.
Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer professor at Virginia Tech who helped uncover the water contamination, testified before Congress in February 2016 that state and federal officials tried to cover up proof of high lead levels. He said Susan Herman, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's former Midwest chief, and Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality dismissed information about contaminants in the city's water system.
"EPA had the chance to be the hero here, and Ms. Hedman snatched defeat for EPA from the jaws of victory," Edwards told the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
In March 2017, the city settled one lawsuit filed by the ACLU, National Resources Defense council and other plaintiffs, for $87 million. The money, along with a $100 million EPA grant, is paying for the pipe replacement project that's mandated to be completed by the end of 2019.
"We expect the city will do what it said and what it's legally committed to do," said Dimple Chaudhary, an attorney with the NRDC. "The most important thing from our perspective is that we're going to be watching every step of the way."
In the meantime, some Flint residents are still using bottled water, not trusting the safety of what comes out of their pipes. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., said in January he doesn't believe the city's water is safe enough to drink.
"I don't think we can trust it yet," he told The Hill. "It's getting better, we have to acknowledge that.
"They were told the water was safe once before when it really wasn't. I think until those lead lines are gone, it's going to be pretty difficult to have full confidence, but we are getting there."
Meanwhile, Flint Public Works Director Rob Bincsik told Michigan Radio the city's water system needs an additional $300 million in capital improvements over the next two decades.
Volunteers deliver bottled water to residents of Flint, Mich.
This month, a federal judge ruled that Flint residents can continue other lawsuits that accuse the EPA of mishandling the crisis with a slow response. More than a dozen suits were filed against the state and Flint after its water was found to be contaminated.
"The EPA was well aware that the Flint River was highly corrosive and posed a significant danger of lead leaching out of the city's lead-based service lines at alarming rates into residents' homes," District Judge Linda Parker of the Eastern District of Michigan wrote in her ruling.
"The impact on the health of the nearly 100,000 residents of the city of Flint remains untold. It is anticipated, however, that the injury caused by the lead-contaminated public water supply system will affect the residents for years and likely generations to come."