One year later: The long-term effects of the Flint water crisis
The water in Laura MacIntyre’s home still comes out murky. Or sometimes, likely thanks to city-installed tap filters, it doesn’t come out at all.
MacIntyre, a University of Michigan-Flint sociology professor, was born and raised in Flint and moved back in 2008. She’s lived through recessions and subsequent proclamations of the city’s return from funding gaps and what she called a history of neglect. But the discovery of lead in the city’s water more than a year ago was the last straw for her.
“There’s just something about this that’s just, it’s … it’s finally worn me down,” she told local camera crews back in April.
Nearly six months later, life in Flint has carried on fairly normally for MacIntyre — or as normal as it can be. Her family still drinks, bathes in and washes clothes with bottled water. Her children receive coloring pages at school reminding them to improve their nutrition and hygiene. Her home’s pipes continue to disintegrate into the walls, and daily life, she says, is rife with a lack of clarity from the government.
“We’re not getting straight answers,” she said in an interview. “We’re scared all the time.”
A large number of Flint residents, including MacIntyre, do not believe local officials’ assurances that city water — now sourced from Lake Huron through Detroit’s water supply — is safe to drink, though crews of construction workers under directions from Mayor Karen Weaver are working to replace houses’ piping systems. Cases of water bottles are still common sights everywhere in the city, as are citizens coping with infectious diseases; just as headlines of a deadly two-year spate of Legionnaire’s disease seemed to stop, a recent outbreak of shigellosis made the news earlier this month.
Throughout the water crisis, institutional acknowledgement of health issues stemming from the water supply was often delayed. Government officials from Weaver to Gov. Rick Snyder (R–Mich.), all the way to President Barack Obama, who visited in May, have appeared before audiences drinking glasses of Flint water in bids to prove its safety.
“We have all sorts of people coming in for a hot minute,” MacIntyre said in reference to the parade of activists and politicians rolling through Flint. “The story being told now, though, is that we’re fine.”
For residents, what’s most toxic in the city runs deeper than any network of pipes, and can’t be fixed by chemical treatments — many say over the last two years, they’ve lost what little trust remained in city and state government.
Local activist Nayyirah Shariff cited demographics in explaining the bleak conclusion she and her neighbors have reached about Flint, where 57 percent of residents are Black and 40 percent live under the poverty line.
“It’s a dangerous public policy model,” she said. “If you’re poor, you lose access to democracy.”
What went wrong
The timeline of the water crisis, by now, is familiar nationwide. State-appointed emergency managers beleaguered by Flint’s financial troubles, in partnership with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, switched the city’s water source from Detroit-supplied water to the Flint River in April 2014. The city was set to join a new pipeline, the Karegnondi Water Authority, but decided to treat its own water in the meantime to save $5 million in less than two years. However, when the water supplies switched, chemicals to control corrosion from the more corrosive Flint River water weren’t introduced — allowing lead to leach into the water from the city’s old pipes.
Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, compiled a report in March 2016 with the Flint Water Advisory Task Force placing blame on the DEQ and emergency management for the water crisis. Kolb said it was the state’s misinterpretation of federal lead and copper guidelines — which limit lead concentration to 15 parts per billion — that allowed them to bypass placing any corrosion control in the water system. The estimated cost of the treatment would have been about $60 a day.
“It was never asked what would happen if they didn’t provide (corrosion control),” he said. “That no phosphates were added, this is the key decision that led to the poisoning of the people of Flint … it’s a combination of ignorance, arrogance and incompetence.”
Residents began reporting rashes, hair loss and negative side effects almost immediately after the water switch. State officials, including emergency managers, refused offers to switch back to Detroit-supplied water and reaffirmed the water’s safety. However, nearly five months in, experts such as Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech Prof. Marc Edwards corroborated citizens’ claims, finding that lead from old water pipes was leaching into the water supply, causing higher lead levels in the blood of Flint children and the health problems reported by residents.
Finally, last October, city officials announced residents should stop drinking city water unfiltered, continuing to advise them against drinking the water even after the switch back to Detroit water a few weeks later. A state of emergency was declared by both Snyder and President Obama, allowing for more federal and state aid.
“Government has to be open to criticism and challenges, and it was not throughout the water crisis,” Kolb said.
Consequences and reparations
A year later, communication from public officials remains a complaint for residents. Various government agencies distribute filters to every household and facilitate water bottle donations, but many residents maintain that aid efforts would have stalled without the independent efforts of citizens.
LeeAnne Walters — who first brought results of severely high, 104 ppb levels of lead in the water at her home to the attention of federal officials in February 2015 — founded the Community Development Organization of Flint in April to centralize advocacy efforts. Similarly, Shariff organized Flint Rising, a coalition of allies and organizations, which came together for door-to-door home checkups and water deliveries.
“We’re doing triage because of gaps in information,” Shariff said. “The prevailing message is it is safe to use filtered water but what they don’t tell you is you have to change your filter at least once a month and that these filters do not take out any biological contaminants. You have people being diagnosed with E. coli and dysentery. People aren’t properly educated on these filters.”
Additionally, water bottle donations, first championed by celebrities from rapper Meek Mill to singer Cher, have slowed significantly over the summer, Michigan Radio reported. Shariff confirmed the trend and pointed to other gaps in distribution, which is still in large part funded by private sources.
“In large part, there is no door-to-door Flint water delivery, which is very problematic for a lot of the elderly population and the disabled population,” Shariff said. “Carrying 30 pounds of water is not easy, especially if you’re elderly.”
She also highlighted a lack of resources for residents without transportation, bilingual families and undocumented citizens.
Beyond local government, efforts to boost federal response, championed in both branches of Congress by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (R–Mich.), have been slow to get off the ground, with a $170 million aid measure stalling in Congress for months before being tacked on to a federal appropriations bill at the end of Septmeber.
Kildee said in an interview the federal inaction was unacceptable.
“We used the threat of a government shutdown to force the issue,” Kildee said. “The reason the federal government needs to act is because state government failed in their responsibilities. I share the frustration of Flint residents that federal action took far too long. I think we need to focus attention back on the state of Michigan.”
“If you live in Flint, things are probably taking longer than you’d like,” Kolb agreed.
A flurry of state-level resignations and lawsuits also came in the wake of the water crisis, aimed at DEQ staff, Snyder and other state officials.Campaigns to recall Snyder as governor also spread throughout the state, with multiple demonstrations on the University's campus earlier this winter. So far, Snyder has responded by proposing a new baseline level of 10 ppb for lead concentration in state water. He also continues to pledge state resources to fund infrastructure in Flint.
Kolb said the state is in the process of implementing 27 of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s 44 recommendations, including public health advisory boards and more agency communication.
However, Shariff and her fellow organizers say that isn’t enough.
“Budgets and policies reflect values,” Shariff said.
The possibility of recurrence
Kildee said despite efforts to portray the water crisis otherwise, Flint’s plight was not created in a vacuum — describing a sentiment common among many residents.
“If this situation took place in Bloomfield Hills, this would’ve been solved a long time ago,” Kildee said.
Many activists note that Flint’s problems run much deeper than water, and question the efficacy of investigations over the crisis run by the same state agencies that were at the root of it, as well as a lack of access to clean water overlapped with gaps in health care coverage and an already-underfunded school system.
As communities across the state contend with aging infrastructure, dwindling budgets and already-marginalized minority communities, Kolb said Flint’s unique storm of factors may not be exceptional.
“In Michigan, it could happen again,” he said. “In certain circumstances, you could be living with higher levels of lead concentration.”
The city is also contending with a number of health factors, both short and long-term. Lead poisoning is a lifelong condition, with far-reaching implications for Flint’s children that officials and residents are just beginning to delve into, and the city is also finding itself facing other issues with its water. Just last week, tests uncovered Legionella bacteria in residence halls at UM-Flint, where MacIntyre works.
She criticized statements from University officials refuting a connection to the water crisis, saying the ties to it were clear.
“Bullshit. It’s a waterborne disease,” she said. “We’re poor, but we’re not stupid.”