In Year Since Water Crisis Began, Flint Struggles In Pipe Replacement Efforts NPR's Ari Shapiro talks to Laura Sullivan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University, about the difficulties in replacing thousands of lead pipes that contaminated water in Flint.
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In Year Since Water Crisis Began, Flint Struggles In Pipe Replacement Efforts

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In Year Since Water Crisis Began, Flint Struggles In Pipe Replacement Efforts

In Year Since Water Crisis Began, Flint Struggles In Pipe Replacement Efforts

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the people who's been closely involved in the effort to replace pipes in Flint is Dr. Laura Sullivan. She's a professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University. She's worked on clean water projects all over the world, and now she's applying her expertise in her hometown. Dr. Sullivan, welcome to the program.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You and I met when I was in Flint back in January. And at the time you were feeling optimistic. I want to play you part of what you told us back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SULLIVAN: I firmly believe that the light is shining so brightly on the city of Flint right now that if there were any entity that had any negative or malicious reason to slow things down, there's no way they could do that.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Sullivan, these nine or so months later, based on what you're seeing today, do you think your optimism was justified?

SULLIVAN: Absolutely not (laughter). I've pounded the wall and I've shed quite a few tears in the time since. I really did believe that once the governor acknowledged that there was a problem that he would empower the people of Flint to help solve the problem. And while he's come in with the committees and so forth, there's just been a lot of dictating to the people of Flint how the problem will be solved and not a lot of dialogue with the people of Flint about what's the best way to do that.

SHAPIRO: There's clearly a trust problem here between citizens of Flint and their elected officials. There's also just a mechanical problem of pipes in the ground that are made of lead that are poisoning people, and those pipes have to be replaced. Why haven't those pipes been replaced as quickly as everybody would have wanted?

SULLIVAN: Well, you know, at first it was the money getting here. And then once the money got here, there were all kinds of stipulations about who could be hired and what bids they had to submit and just a lot of red tape that General Mike McDaniel, who's been running that whole process, has been trying to be patient about moving forward on.

SHAPIRO: Why couldn't anyone just cut through the red tape and say this is urgent, it needs to get done, let's do it?

SULLIVAN: Well, one would probably guess that somebody who could have done that didn't have the will to do that because I can tell you that the mayor of Flint and General McDaniel and the people of Flint were doing everything they could to make that happen. And once General McDaniel was able to get through that horrendous bidding process, as soon as we finally got that green light, he began working. And they've quickened the pace every week.

SHAPIRO: You also expressed hope when we last spoke that this problem would help create jobs for people in Flint - replacing pipe, assessing the infrastructure and so on. Have we seen that?

SULLIVAN: Well, I can tell you that with the mayor and the plumbers union at the beginning of this, we sat down and made a commitment to working with licensed plumbers on the pipe replacement program and that the plumbers made a commitment to expanding their apprentice program, and that has been done. So there have been collaborations that have resulted in vocational training that will progress into employment. Slowly, yes, there are more opportunities coming into Flint.

SHAPIRO: How different is this from work that you've done in other parts of the world - sub-Saharan Africa, South America, underdeveloped countries - where you've dealt with water issues there?

SULLIVAN: Well, it ought to be a lot different (laughter). It ought to be just a one-time, oh, my gosh, people weren't paying attention and they were reckless, and now we figured it out and now we fixed it. But unfortunately, it feels more and more like a system in parts of the world where the government is corrupt, and there are too many hands that are involved that don't involve the people who are actually living in poverty. And the people who are living in poverty aren't empowered to be part of the solution.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Laura Sullivan, thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Sullivan is a professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University in Flint, Mich.

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