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Critics say Detroit water restoration too slow, appeal to Gov. Whitmer

Running faucet
Melissa Benmark
Michigan Radio

Detroit is turning on water service to thousands of households that had been shut off—but some say it’s moving too slowly.

Detroit established an affordable program to restore and prevent shutoffs for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Friday, the city’s water department had restored service to 434 households.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says its data show that about 2,800 homes were in shutoff status before the program began, and it’s unclear how many of those homes are occupied.

But activists and some researchers say data they’ve compiled through Freedom of Information Act requests and on-the-ground observation puts the number closer to 10,000 households. They say the city must act faster to provide clean water for vulnerable residents during a pandemic.

Sylvia Orduño with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization blames the city for failing to provide affordable water to all its residents.

“And now what we are seeing (is a) very imminent health crises, and the inability to control the pandemic because of the lack of water restoration by the City of Detroit,” Orduño said.

Orduño and other activists with the People’s Water Board Coalition sent a letter to Governor Whitmer last week, decrying what they call the city’s inadequate response, and demanding some interim measures.

“What we’re looking for specifically from the City of Detroit is the delivery of bulk water, and to have it installed in public water stations across the city, so residents who don’t have water can go pick up water,” she said. “And advocates like us, who know where these households are, can deliver water for people who are unable to get it.”

Dr. Paul von Oeyen, anther People’s Water Board member, said water for hand-washing and basic sanitation is crucial to slowing the spread of coronavirus.

“Or else, the tsunami tidal wave of this crisis cannot be contained in Detroit,” von Oeyen said. “Instead it will rush right through like a sieve, to the detriment of everyone in Michigan.”

By late Friday, two of Michigan’s four COVID-19 deaths have been in Detroit.

Orduño said she’s also seen evidence that DWSD is “de-prioritizing” water restoration for homes with plumbing damage, sometimes caused by a long-term shutoff. “For some of the households where the water has been shut off for extensive periods of time, the water lines have been damaged,” she said. “The piping inside the house has been corroded.”

DWSD spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh said restoration efforts have been slowed somewhat by homes that need plumbing repairs, and the city has brought in additional plumbing contractors to deal with that. Peckinpaugh said some DWSD workers have also found a surprising number of homes without water meters, and need to install them before turning on the water.

“We need access to get inside the home to restore service—it’s not as simple as turning a key,” Peckinpaugh said, noting that residents must reach out and cooperate with DWSD to get in the COVID-19 program.

But that program “is working,” Peckinpaugh said, noting that in addition to homes where water has been restored, 843 are in the process of restoration and 252 have avoided shutoff.

Neither Peckinpaugh nor Mayor Mike Duggan’s office responded to questions about whether the city would consider supplying bulk water and cleaning supplies, or work on more widespread messaging about the COVID-19 water program.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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