On the Money

Flint's crisis can be fixed with $55M in new pipes: Lansing mayor

Toxic tap water
Toxic tap water

As Flint, Michigan's water disaster continues, a blueprint to fix the city's lead contamination is being floated by the mayor of the state's capital city.

A decade ago, Lansing was able to avoid a toxic tap water disaster in their city by making a decision to initiate a massive lead pipe removal program. It's a solution the city's mayor is advocating to Flint, in order to alleviate a problem that's morphed into a national scandal.

"This is a crisis of epic proportions," Lansing Mayor Virgil "Virg" Bernero told CNBC's "On the Money" in a recent interview. "Those lead pipes have got to go."

Back in 2004, Lansing residents began voicing complaints about their water. That led the city to act decisively, Bernero told CNBC. The Democrat has been Lansing's mayor since 2006.

"Just like in Flint, some of the citizens were the canary in the mine. They brought it to our attention and we started looking into it," he added.

Saginaw Street in downtown is shown on February 7, 2016 in Flint, Michigan.
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Bernero says officials in Lansing "dug into" the city's water safety. "We expected direct answers and we expected positive answers and we didn't get them." Instead, Bernero said, they got "rather vague" answers about lead levels. "We looked into the testing procedures, and we were not convinced the water was safe."

What followed in Lansing was a 12 year project to remove about 14,000 lead water service lines, at a cost of $42 million dollars, and replace them with copper lines. The money to replace the pipes came from a capital improvement fund paid for by the utilities' customers through their water rates.

The program is scheduled to be completed next year.

"We started asking about lead, and what is the safe level of lead, and there isn't one, especially for kids," the mayor said. "So we said the prudent thing to do is to improve the testing and start getting these lead pipes out. Get the lead out."

Now Lansing is trying to help Flint follow their lead to "get the lead out," Bernero said. "Because we've done it in Lansing, we've sent our crews over to Flint."

He said that, along with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, they've designed a lead pipe replacement plan "where we think it can be done in a year, with about 30 crews and $55 million dollars." He added that pipe replacement could cost as little as "3 to 4 thousand dollars a home."

Bernero explains that's because instead of digging a huge trench from the street to each home, "we perfected a system of threading instead of trenching." That involves digging a hole by a house, then pulling up the lead pipes as copper pipe is pulled through.

"You thread it through like you would thread a needle. And it cut the time and money in half to replace these pipes," he said.

"No' to new governor run

A man sits next to a stack of bottled water at a rally where the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke about the water crises at the Heavenly Host Baptist Church January 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan.
Getty Images

Last week, the Michigan attorney general announced criminal charges against two state environmental officials and the city employee who ran Flint's water treatment plant. The three are accused of allegedly misleading regulators about the lead crisis.

Separately, Governor Rick Snyder proposed the state enact tougher lead-testing rules than the federal EPA standard. The Republican also pledged he would drink Flint tap water daily for the next 30 days.

Bernero, however, told CNBC he was not impressed. "The Governor says 'I'll drink the water for a month. I'll prove its safe.' [but] he'll drink filtered water," Bernero said. "He wants to do a publicity stunt and these folks (in Flint) are out there living with it, day in and day out."

In 2010, Bernero was the Democratic nominee for governor, but lost the election in 2010 to Snyder.

Is he planning of challenging Snyder again? "I am not" he told CNBC, "and I have been meticulous about not attacking the Governor."

Still, Bernero did say for any lead pipe removal plan to get started in Flint, "There has to be an element of urgency that should be led by the Governor."

On the Money airs on CNBC Saturday at 5:30 am ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.