Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision on April 6 to stop providing free bottled water to Flint residents has drawn backlash from members of the Flint community and outside observers alike.
When he announced the decision, which ended a practice that has been carried out since January 2016 in response to the water crisis facing the city, Snyder noted that lead levels in Flint water have been below the federal limit for almost two years now. Snyder said state funding for water was no longer necessary.
Despite the lowered lead levels, some city officials expressed their distaste with the choice. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver was notified of the decision minutes before it was announced to the public. The day before, she had written a letter to Snyder requesting that the bottled water supply remain. But these concerns evidently fell on deaf ears in Lansing.
According to Pamela Pugh, Flint’s chief public health advisor, the city leadership was caught off guard and remains unhappy with the governor’s decision. Pugh advises the mayor and city council on all issues relating to public health and anticipates how policy decisions will affect it. She noted that there are a number of homes using outdated lead or galvanized-steel pipes to supply their water, and that the city is still in the process of replacing them. Although the water is clean by federal standards, it can still pick up lead when it flows through these lines. Roughly 6,200 have thus far been replaced, and an estimated 12,000 remain.
Trish Koman, a multidisciplinary researcher at the University, worked to bring informational resources to Flint residents after the School of Public Health was approached by several aid organizations requesting help. A significant portion of her research is concerned with environmental health.
“It’s a really longstanding situation that allowed this to happen,” Koman said. “Given that there is a long history, it also means that problems like that aren’t easily solved because at the base, there are questions of power, there are questions of race and discrimination, there are questions of wealth and who decides. All of those things are present in these decisions.”
Koman believes the problem can be separated into three parts: the water, the delivery system and the people. The water is cleaner, but the delivery system is still flawed since many lead pipes have yet to be replaced in the city’s water system. According to Koman, the human aspect of the problem is far from solved.
“In the community meetings that I attended, I heard residents say that they would never go back to drinking the (tap) water because they could never trust it ever again,” Koman said. “They had lost their faith in government trying to protect them. They had lost their faith in the state and they were just so disheartened by what had occurred.”
Residents dealt with a number of health problems when the crisis began but were told by government officials that the water was fine. According to Pugh, this and other failures by the government have eroded the faith of Flint residents. She also addressed Snyder’s point that the water is now clean by federal standards.
“We are seeing the water quality improve,” Pugh said. “We have more work to do as it relates to making sure residents can see that the quality of the water has improved. And that’s not their fault. That is because they’ve lost trust in the systems that were there to protect their health.”
Business sophomore Obayda Jondy, a lifelong Flint resident who helped distribute water and filters to affected areas during the apex of the crisis, also shares this sentiment.
“The decision is spit in our face,” Jondy said. “They don’t care anymore — that’s basically what they’re telling us. ‘We don’t care that you get clean drinking water or not. It’s not our obligation. You’re on your own.’”
Jondy shares residents’ distrust, saying he believes government officials have never given poor Flint residents a reason to have faith in them.
“It’s crooked. Everything is about a dollar. They don’t really care for people’s lives,” Jondy said. “That’s why (residents) don’t trust the government. They know that they don’t care about poor black people because they never did.”
Jondy reiterated the necessity of government aid and the gravity of the situation, which he said many people in Michigan do not understand.
“We need government aid, and we need the federal government to step in,” Jondy said. “It needs to be done. These are people’s lives, and everyone is just standing there and watching. That’s the most important thing.”
Koman also emphasized that the problems that characterized the water crisis are not contained to Flint, saying the government has the capability to address the problem elsewhere but has neglected to do so.
“Lead is a preventable source of neurological damage to children,” Koman said. “We think about Flint, but there are more children in Detroit that have high blood lead levels than Flint just because Detroit is a bigger place. The state absolutely can and should address the reduction of lead. We know where the hazards are. We know what we need to do. There’s a problem. There’s a solution. You can put it together. And no family should ever, ever have to have a child with elevated lead levels.”