FLINT, Mich. — General Motors, the biggest employer in Flint, might also be its luckiest water customer.
Soon after Flint made its ill-fated switch in 2014 to Flint River water from the costlier Detroit municipal system, officials at GM’s engine plant here flagged a big problem: corrosion caused by high levels of chloride in the water.
“The water was rusting the [engine] blocks,” Dan Reyes, president of UAW Local 599, which represents the plant’s nearly 900 workers, recalled in an interview last week.
In December 2014, the plant switched from Flint’s tainted water system to a fresh supply from neighboring Flint Township -- an option that was not afforded other Flint residents and businesses.
The workaround was made possible by the factory’s fortuitous location and some heads-up planning.
Plant officials were among the first people in Flint to detect something wrong. It was in summer 2014, many months before the problem of corroding lead pipes would morph into a public-health calamity and national media maelstrom.
For GM, the problem was not lead but the elevated levels of chloride in the treated river water -- added to remove solids and contaminants -- that began to cause “visible corrosion damage on parts coming out of the machining process,” GM spokesman Tom Wickham said last week.
The 1.2-million-square-foot plant makes engines used in the Buick Enclave crossover, Chevrolet Cruze compact and Colorado pickup and other vehicles.
For months, factory officials tried to make it work. They used reverse osmosis, an advanced and pricey purification process. Additional water was trucked in to dilute chloride levels. The remediation efforts proved time consuming and costly, Wickham said.
It was then that GM began working through the bureaucratic red tape of extracting itself from its Flint water contract and hooking into the township, which uses water treated by Detroit. That was an option only because of the plant’s location on the boundary of Flint Township. (The engine factory was once within the township, before it was annexed by the city in the 1970s.)
As a result, it was relatively easy to tap into the township’s pipes, Flint Township Treasurer Marsha Binelli explained in an interview last week. “The infrastructure already was in place,” she said.
But for GM’s Flint workers, the engine corrosion was an unsettling sign. That’s about the time their questions about the safety of the water -- used inside the factories for food preparation, coffee, showers and drinking water -- grew louder, Reyes said.
“At the time, these state officials are saying that it’s safe to drink,” Reyes said. Members began asking: “If it’s too corrosive for an engine, what’s it doing to the inside of a person?”
UAW officials say the water crisis has been a hardship on everyone who works at GM’s plants, whether or not they live in the city. (The company’s Flint assembly and stamping plants, which use less water in their operations than the engine factory uses, remain on the Flint city system.)
Residents have been installing home water filters and stocking up on bottled water for drinking. One afternoon last week, a steady stream of vehicles pulled up to the city’s main fire department, where Army National Guard troops loaded cases of water into trunks and back seats. GM workers who live elsewhere still have affected friends or family, said Scott Henry, an international servicing rep at the UAW.
“Many of these people are third- and fourth-generation union workers,” Henry said. “They’re worried about their elderly parents, their kids. They’re worried about the values of their homes.”
The water crisis has again turned a harsh national spotlight on Flint, a city of about 100,000 residents, mostly black, that is among the nation’s highest in poverty and violent crime. It was here that GM founder Billy Durant transformed his carriage-building business for the motor age and began peddling Buicks in 1908. By the 1970s, GM employed about 80,000 workers in Flint.
A few years ago, GM bought the original factory and office building from which Durant started the company -- complete with his spittoon and handwritten records -- to convert it into a small museum and archive center.
GM’s work force here has dwindled to about 7,200 -- a dramatic erosion chronicled in the 1989 Michael Moore documentary Roger & Me -- but Flint remains a GM town. GM is the largest employer and one of the biggest taxpayers in the city.
The water crisis has also stoked the UAW’s social-justice mission, union officials say. Hundreds of workers have volunteered on recent Fridays to deliver cases of bottled water -- many using their personal pickups -- to local community centers, for example. (The General Motors Foundation last fall donated $50,000 to the local United Way chapter for the purchase of water filters for city residents.)
Amid widespread distrust of public officials who had long dismissed concerns about the safety of Flint River water, UAW members and retirees have turned to union leaders to fill the void, Reyes said.
Several of the few hundred retirees who attended Local 599’s union hall for a monthly meeting last week had water-related questions. Where can they get free water filters? How long is the lead contamination expected to last?
“In their eyes, we’re expected to have all the answers,” Reyes said. “They want to know that someone is fighting for them, fighting to find a solution. That’s what we’re doing.”