For plumbers in Flint, Mich., “it’s been a heck of a year,” said Harold T. Harrington, a master plumber and pipefitter working as the business manager for Flint’s United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, Local 370.

Three years after Flint’s water crisis was first reported and a little more than a year after state officials acknowledged the lead problems, many residents still rely on bottled water. Even those with new service lines, taps, filters, and water heaters don’t fully trust what pours out of their home faucets.

With the crisis of Flint’s lead-tainted water scandal comes an opportunity for the community to serve as a bellwether for all U.S. municipalities and a chance for some Flint residents to aid in the recovery while starting new careers — as plumbers and pipefitters.

Replacing an estimated 29,000 lead service lines, finding and replacing galvanized lines, and updating the water plant’s delivery system is a multi-year effort, said lawyer and retired U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Michael McDaniel, who has extensive experience in Homeland Security specializing in infrastructure. He was appointed last year by Gov. Rick Snyder to act as a liaison between the state and city, coordinating the recovery effort.

“We’re a third-world country if we don’t have a good water system,” McDaniel said.

He praised Local 370’s efforts.

“They did an awful lot of work getting volunteers, installing filters, and, more importantly, acting as advisors to city officials and to the groups [of residents] out there,” McDaniel said. “They did a nice job of being very clear about what the issue was.”

Harrington helped organize nearly 500 volunteer plumbers from around Michigan for a day-long installation of faucets and filters in January; many of the volunteers also donated bottled water and lead-testing kits.

Harrington said Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality supported replacing thousands of other fixtures in schools, day care centers, and nursing homes. The grocery chain Kroger matched Local 370’s $20,000 donation for bottled water. Throughout the year, other donations poured in along with visits by then-President Barack Obama and the candidates running to replace him; environmental activist Erin Brockovich; celebrities such as Cher, Mark Ruffalo, Big Sean, Jack White, Aretha Franklin, KEM, and Jimmy Fallon; and Flint natives Sandra Bernhard and Michael Moore. Dozens of other celebrities pitched in by donating money and water as well as using social media to raise awareness of the crisis.

A combined effort by PMI and the UA drew critical supplies from manufacturers like BrassCraft Mfg., which donated shut-off valves, and Ferguson, which gave more than 200 faucets.

The service lines and faucets are just a fraction of the work needed to fix Flint’s water problem — the water plant and its extensive delivery network need updating, too.

The crisis began when the city’s emergency manager switched from Detroit’s water service to drawing water from the Flint River, after which water plant officials stopped treating the pipes with an anticorrosive intended to prevent lead from leaching into the water.

Tests later showed lead levels in some homes at more than 13,000 parts per billion; McDaniel said federal standards for drinking water pipes spur action after two consecutive quarters of sampling if 10 percent of homes are above the federal action level of 15 ppb. High lead levels cause brain damage in infants and children.

In April, Michigan’s attorney general filed criminal charges against two Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees; in July, six more state employees were charged, some of whom had resigned or been fired by the time charges were announced, and in December, two former state-appointed Flint emergency managers and the city’s former public works director were added to the list of defendants.

In March, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver launched the Flint Action and Sustainability Team (FAST) Start program, with which McDaniel works to strategically speed up recovery. But the flow of federal and state funding means service lines are being replaced as the city can afford it — 6,000 properties at a time, with contracts being let through 2019. Federal rules designating $170 million for the work cap spending at $5,000 per property.

Given the years of work ahead, McDaniel said, some Flint activists rightfully worry that awareness of the long-term crisis will fade from interest and replaced with newer stories on failing infrastructure like the sinkhole in nearby Fraser, Mich.

Like McDaniel, Harrington knows most U.S. communities exist with aging infrastructure “that nobody sees,” he said. “It’s out of sight, out of mind till something like Flint happens.”        

McDaniel sees a way for those in the trades to change that. Tradespeople can “be really involved, like engineers are with bridges and interstates,” by educating local elected officials in Michigan’s 276 cities, 257 villages, and 1,240 townships, he said.

That’s a huge number of communities, all of which “have control of some budget having to do with infrastructure,” McDaniel added.  “Plumbers and pipefitters don’t have to be alarmist, but they can educate public officials — who change every two to four years — on [the risks]. If they don’t stick to a system of maintenance, [they’re] going to have a failure of the water system infrastructure.”

McDaniel said failures like Flint’s water crisis brings “everything to a halt, including the economy, and then you have to request further resources from federal and state offices.” And getting help takes time, he said, so communities should plan to bridge the gap, from contracts with professionals willing to drop everything to help to contracts with suppliers guaranteeing pre-crisis costs.

Looking forward, Harrington said, also includes advocating training for plumbers and pipefitters in water-testing procedures.

“Think about it,” Harrington said. “If your cable goes out at your house, you know who to call for help. But if you think something’s wrong with your water, who do you call? You don’t call a plumber, do you?”

He added that plumbers trained in water testing could carry test kits in their service vehicles. “If someone wants know what’s in their water, they should be able to do so at a reasonable price.”


Apprenticing for a new life

Perry Alexander can trace his roots in Flint to the 1930s, when his grandfather arrived from Mississippi to be an autoworker. Alexander, until 2015, followed suit, holding a job at Rogers Foam Automotive Corp.

Then he heard about the Michigan Works pre-apprenticeship program.

“I went into the environmental career worker training program, and when I found out they were offering [apprenticeships], I jumped into it,” he said. “I went through rigorous training.”

In September, he was hired as a plumbing apprentice.

“Every day is an adventure — I love it,” he said. He said he enjoys replacing plumbing related to Flint’s water crisis and meeting fellow Flint residents from all walks of life, who are grateful to see him.

“To be totally honest, I’m glad to be helping my city and doing something myself,” he said. “So many people were hurt. Everybody knows Flint is impoverished. It’s a big task, a lot of people … I go to the houses and meet so many different people, and [they’re] like, ‘Thank God,’ ‘Bless you guys.’ Elderly people and kids. It kind of breaks my heart. What I’m doing is a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done.”

With construction on the upswing, the likelihood of a glut of plumbers in the next several years is low, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which predicts that jobs for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters will grow quickly — by 12 percent — through 2024.

Plumbing, Alexander said, will better support his family, which includes four children and a fiancé.  “I’ve got benefits now — healthcare and a pension — [and] a chance for raises and advancement.”

He added: “I just want people to know it’s a lot of good people in Flint — smart, brilliant minds. They just need to be looked at and given a chance to be taken seriously.”