"Flint needs us," said a Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 370 apprentice volunteer, when we asked what motivated him to join the effort.
Local 370's union hall was used that day as the home base for some 470 pipe trades union professionals, some of whom made a two-hour drive to help alleviate the water crisis in Flint. Responding to a request for help from their local unions, the Michigan plumbers and fitters donated their time and skills by installing new water filters and new faucets where necessary, and delivering lead testing kits and bottled water to elderly Flint residents or others who needed the help.
The pipe trades volunteers gathered just before 9 a.m. at the union hall in nearby Flushing, part of a coordinated effort by the United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters to help take care of a community whose water system has been poisoned by lead.
"It was just an overwhelming response," said host Local 370 Business Manager Harold Harrington. "And our own volunteers were coming back and thanking us for letting them be a part of it. No one knew about the conditions they were going to find, what people in Flint were going through, that people had to leave their own house to get water to drink or cook with. And when our guys left the homes, a lot of them said the people they visited were crying, they were so grateful. They didn't think anyone cared."
The pipe trades volunteers, who arrived using their own personal transportation or in one of 68 service vehicles donated by contractors, were given names and addresses of people in Flint who needed help installing filters on their kitchen faucets. In some cases, faucets need to be replaced because they were too old to accept the filters. The filters were provided by the State of Michigan, and for now are the only state-sponsored "fix" for removing the lead in the water coming from taps.
Before they went out to Flint residents' homes, the assembled plumbers and fitters were asked by Local 370 Business Representatives Jeff Peake and Ben Ranger to explain to the residents how to replace the water filter cartridges - which are only good for 100 gallons - and that running hot water through the filters can ruin them. They also asked the volunteers not to participate in the blame game over who is responsible for the water crisis in Flint. "A lot of residents you're going to run into are going to be upset, and rightfully so," Ranger said. "They may not know who you are. I can't stress enough that you should only tell them you are a union plumber with state-supplied filters and that you're there to help."
Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell talked to local television station ABC 12 about the lead crisis with the plumbers assembled in the background.
"It is a man-made problem, it's not a problem created by anyone here, these are the people who are going to fix the problem," said Pickell. "This is one of the great unions. People knock unions. But just take a look, (470) people are here to service the people. Now if that's not a good healthy spirit of what represents Flint, Michigan, I don't know what is.
He added: "If you have to pay one of these guys time and a half on a Saturday the cost would be immeasurable, most people couldn't afford it in the City of Flint. But they're here to donate their time and their great skill, over the years they learned this trade, and they're going to put it to good use today for people who are vulnerable."
On that Saturday, plumber and fitter volunteers arrived at Flint Local 370 from United Association local unions 85 (Saginaw), 98 (Detroit), 190 (Ann Arbor), 333 (Lansing-Jackson-Battle Creek), 636 (Detroit) and 671 (Monroe). Local 370 volunteers have been visiting Flint residents' homes since last October, before Flint's dire lead situation became national news.
"Everyone deserves clean drinking water," said Local 370 apprentice plumber Bill Aumick, who volunteered on Jan. 30, the second time he has visited homes in the city. "I don't live in Flint now, but I grew up there, and I have a lot of family and friends there. I'm just here to help the people of Flint."
United Association Director of Plumbing Services Tom Bigley told the plumbers "we're all glad and proud that you're here, it's a great day for the plumbing industry. Until today, probably the most famous plumber in America was Joe the Plumber, for all the wrong reasons. Thank you for your service, on behalf of all the unions in North America."
Flint's lead crisis began in April 2014, when the city's Water Department, under control of a state financial manager, switched its supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to corrosive Flint River water taken in by the Flint Water Treatment Plant.
Inexplicably, necessary corrosion control chemicals were not put into the Flint water system when the change was made, allowing lead to leach from pipes and joints and into an unknown number of Flint homes. For months, the state Department of Environmental Quality denied reports of elevated lead levels in drinking water and the blood of Flint children, but private tests indicated the presence of high lead levels, which can cause irreversible brain damage in young people. The state finally acknowledged the lead problem on Oct. 1, and now Flint and Genesee County are under state and federal emergency declarations. The Flint system has been switched back to using Detroit water, but samples continue to find lead in Flint, and it's not known how long that will continue.
Flint resident Amia Aikins expressed her thanks to plumbers Mike Pegley and Bob Eremia of Local 370 as they were leaving her home after completing the installation of a filter on her kitchen faucet on Jan. 30. "The filter will be a help, because I won't have to think about the water as much," she said. "And you do have to constantly remember that the water coming out of your faucet is bad." Motioning to her two-and-a-half year-old son, she said she would continue bathing him using bottled water. "But now even with the filter, I still won't drink from the faucet," Aikins said.
There are no easy solutions in Flint. Digging up old lead pipes may eventually become an (incredibly expensive) option. The state-supplied filters are a stop-gap measure: they only treat up to 100 gallons of water before their filters need changing, and they are only good for removing lead up to 150 parts per billion. Reports say some homes in Flint have tested over 4,000 ppb in the last few weeks. The union plumbers also handed out lead testing kits to Flint residents to make sure their water is safe.
There is also a real concern that the community's unprecedented use and uncontrolled disposal of lead-filled filters, as well as the manufacture and disposal of all those plastic water bottles, are environmental debacles in the making. But there isn't much of an alternative.
"I'm just looking to help out," said Local 333 plumber Marty Hampton, loading a case of water in his trunk. "The plumber takes care of the health of the nation, and we're trying to do our part here in Flint."
Pipe trades unions take the lead on getting the lead out
Here is a sampling of the good work performed in Flint on Jan. 30, and in weeks prior, by union volunteers from the United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters:
*There were 470 union member volunteers from around the State of Michigan who helped in the Jan. 30 effort.
*Water bottles were delivered and state-supplied faucet-mounted filters were installed in 1,533 homes. The volunteer plumbers placed 113 new faucets, when it was found that the existing faucets were inadequate for accepting the filters.
*The effort was aided by the donation of 68 service trucks/vans by 25 different union-affiliated contractors.
*Faucets and other plumbing fixtures were donated by the Plumbing Manufacturers International.
*From Jan. 14-29, Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 370 volunteers installed 1,352 filters and delivered bottled water. At the end of October, Local 370 Business Manager Harold Harrington reported that they were given about 300 names that required a filter installation and completed them.
*All told, Local 370 members and their fellow union volunteers from around Michigan have visited more than 3,000 homes in the effort to help alleviate the lead crisis in Flint.
*And the effort continues. Harrington reports that water bottle delivery, filter installation and faucet replacements have continued over the past two weeks. Local apprentices and those from surrounding apprenticeships programs are being employed in the effort during school days. On Feb. 2, the Genesee County Sheriff's office submitted another eight pages of names and addresses of Flint residents requesting new faucets.
The United Association (UA) of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting industry (International Union)per the direction of General President William P Hite, and General Secretary-Treasurer Mark McManus, is accepting donations through the UA Charitable Fund Trust (Three Park Place, Annapolis, MD 21401) and have solicited donations to help Flint from all pipe trades unions across North America. At this point local unions and affiliated partners have donated approximately $75,000 to assist in the crisis.
PLUMBERS AND PIPE FITTERS from Michigan unions provide the backdrop for a television interview conducted at right with Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell in the parking lot of Flint-Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 370. There was an incredible showing of 470 union volunteers who came to Flint from the near and far in Michigan on Jan. 30, to help alleviate the lead in the water crisis by installing water filters on residents’ faucets, changing out old faucets that didn’t accept the filters, and distributing water bottles and lead test kits. “I couldn’t be more proud to be a union member than I am today,” said United Association International Rep. Gary Young, in remarks to the group.
PLUMBERS and Pipe Fitters Local 370 members Bob Erema, kneeling, and Mike Pegley complete the installation of a filter on a Flint resident’s kitchen faucet.
LOCAL 370 Plumber Terry (T.J.) James (orange jacket) distributes water filters to volunteers from Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 190 on Jan. 30.