Multiple individuals within state government, local government and the Flint community are leading initiatives to remedy the ongoing water crisis — and respond to the storm of media attention — the city faces.
The crisis began in April 2014 after a water supply switch from Detroit city water to Flint River water. In the weeks and months following the switch, residents began reporting adverse health effects including hair loss and rotting teeth. Both Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and President Barack Obama have declared states of emergencies for the city.
The long-term health effects, especially on young children, are one of the largest concerns for the citizens of Flint. Sharon Swindell, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University, said the primary concern for young children is that lead poisoning will cause developmental issues, which can lead to poor academic outcomes.
“There is no safe level of lead in a person’s body,” she said. “Children, who have a lot of brain growth and development in the first six years, are vulnerable to cognitive and developmental effects. The things we worry about long term include decreasing IQ, poor academic achievement and problems with attention.”
In Flint itself and in the state legislature, local leaders have taken multiple steps to resolve the crisis. Earlier this month, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver met with Obama and White House advisers to discuss how to best handle the situation.
In a press release, Weaver said the most essential part of the process is getting the necessary supplies to those who need them.
“We need help in the form of supplies including water, filters and water test kits,” she said. “We also need help distributing those supplies to get them in the hands of the people who need them most.”
State Sen. Jim Ananich (D–Flint) said his team is working on addressing the issue at three levels: immediate, short-term and long-term responses. He said the immediate priority is ensuring citizens have access to bottled water and filtration systems, while the short- and long-term actions involve monitoring the health of affected individuals and repairing infrastructure.
Peter Jacobson, professor of health law and policy, said it’s important for the government to take steps to provide follow-up health care for affected citizens, especially children exposed to lead, and pay for water costs.
“The pressure should be from the state and federal government, to provide Flint with the resources the city will need to monitor the children and to provide counseling and educational health therapy,” he said. “The state of Michigan should pay the water bills for Flint residents until the water is safe to drink.”
This week, the state Senate will be reviewing a bill recently passed in the state House approving an emergency request from Snyder for $28 million in emergency funding for both short and long-term needs.
Ananich said the city is now able to adequately supply residents with the water and filtration systems they need due to donations, meaning the focus moving forward should be on longer-term health monitoring.
“All sorts of folks are now providing a really good amount of water to my community,” he said. “We’ve almost sort of turned the corner on the immediate need. The most important focus is to get these kids assessed to see what kind of issues they may have long-term and place them in programs to make sure they get the individualized help they need.”
According to state Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D–Flint), the state House is also preparing to consider a series of bills as part of the Water Quality and Affordability Package; however the bills have not yet been scheduled for hearings.
Along with the legislative and executive actions, the U.S. Attorney’s office has also launched an investigation into the crisis, spearheaded by former Wayne County assistant prosecutor Todd Flood. However, Jacobson said it is unlikely that any individuals will be charged because of an emergency manager law enacted during Snyder’s first term as governor. The law allows the state to appoint an emergency manager at an earlier stage in the case of a serious financial emergency. Jacobson said this law provides the officials tasked with addressing the water crisis near immunity for the actions taken during an emergency situation.
Jacobson said though he doubts residents’ ability to find legal justice for the crisis, he still believes the issue was the fault of the government.
“The state failed here,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that the state is anything but culpable.”
Amid the crisis, UM-Flint officials have also launched initiatives to aid the Flint community. Citing a campus fact sheet — which details that water on UM-Flint’s campus is filtered and regularly tested — UM-Flint Chancellor Susan Borrego issued a letter to students on Monday assuring them campus water was safe. According to Borrego, UM-Flint installed water filters across campus after the city advised residents to boil their water in the fall of 2014.
Flint residents have also been advised by the state to use filtration systems in their homes, and various groups have donated filters and water bottles to citizens.
Terese Olson, professor of civil and environmental engineering, said it is unclear how effective these filtration systems truly are, and they should be carefully monitored.
“These filters are designed to treat water that’s been polished already,” she said. “It’s an uncertain question how well they will work or how long they will work, and there’s not a lot of guidance we can give people except to be conservative.”
Neeley said one of the most important steps for the community to take is restoring trust in the government.
“We have to go back and rebuild the trust and confidence of those in the geographical area who were severely impacted so they can feel comfortable living inside the city of Flint,” he said.