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Science & Environment

Plumbers Converge On Flint To Help Get Lead Out Of Its Drinking Water

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn now to Flint, Mich., where we have some rare, good news. That city is in a state of emergency after high lead levels were found in the drinking water. Many residents remain confused and angry. They've been scrambling for accurate information and scrambling for enough bottled water to make it through the day. Well, now help is starting to come in from government agencies, nonprofit groups and from people from all walks of life. Michigan radio's Tracy Samilton reports on a volunteer effort by an often unsung group, plumbers.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Since October, plumbers with United Association Local 370 in Flint have been volunteering to install filters and faucets to get lead out of people's tap water. On Saturday, the local guys got some help from a small army of more than 300 plumbers driving in from cities across Michigan. They get a rousing, union-pride welcome from Local 370 official Harold Harrington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAURA HARRINGTON: We did not cause this American tragedy in Flint, but we certainly can help correct the damage that has been done.

SAMILTON: Everyone is paired up and given instructions and a list of addresses. I'm with Jordan Belill and his cousin Tyler. They get their list, grab armloads of donated faucets, filters and test kits, and head out. Our first stop is the home of Berdie Johnson. Like practically every house in Flint, she has cases of bottled water stacked in the kitchen. Johnson says, in a way, it was lucky her water didn't look right two years ago. That was when the city switched from Detroit water to Flint River water in order to save money.

BERDIE JOHNSON: I was buying the water before we even realized that they said all the lead was in it because the water was brown - looked like Kool-Aid.

SAMILTON: Jordan Belill finds out Johnson needs a specific kind of faucet that he doesn't have. She'll be put on a list for a follow-up visit. In the meantime, he installs a filter in the laundry room.

JORDAN BELILL: It's good.

JOHNSON: OK.

BELILL: It will turn yellow when it's telling you it's getting close to being used up and will blink red when it's time to change it.

JOHNSON: Oh, OK.

SAMILTON: Belill reminds Johnson to get her water tested. The next stop is the home of Loyce Driskell.

LOYCE DRISKELL: Hi, there.

BELILL: Hello.

DRISKELL: Come in.

SAMILTON: This time, the faucet replacement is successful. Driskell laughs. They're replacing a brand-new custom faucet with one exactly like the one she just got rid of. Then she turned serious. She and her family only stopped drinking the water three months ago.

DRISKELL: We think that if we've been drinking this water for a couple of years - and that's how long it's existed - that these efforts, at this point - you know, the damage is almost done.

SAMILTON: That may or may not be true for her family. Recent tests appear to show the water in many homes is under the federal action level for lead, but a few homes have so much lead that filters may not work. The plumbers visit 1,100 homes by the end of the day. Local 370 will keep on volunteering. Money, too, is starting to come in, including $28 million from the state of Michigan. Officials with the agencies responsible for causing the problem in the first place now say they're here for the long haul and will not abandon Flint until everything possible has been done to repair the damage. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.