By Jacob Wheeler
Photos by Devon Hains for the White Pine Press (NMC student-run newspaper), March 2016
Five years after the crisis began, some Flint residents don’t trust the water coming from their taps, even though the state has declared it safe. They continue to use bottled water for drinking, bathing, and baptizing their children. Their trust in government long ago washed down the drain.
Where bread lines formed during the Great Depression, bottled water lines formed during the height of Flint’s water crisis in 2015-2016.
“We are five years out, and we’re still not fixed. We still have ongoing issues,” Rev. Monica M. Villareal, a pastor at Salem Lutheran Church on Flint’s north side, told MLive’s Ron Fonger, who was among the first journalists out of the gate to cover the water crisis. “For our residents, we really don’t see the change. I think that in the broader community, there is frustration of not seeing more activity” to improve the water system.
Meanwhile, the state’s emergency manager law that limits power of local government and helped cause the water crisis is still on the books.
Villareal and other leaders held a press conference in front of the Flint Water Plant this morning, after which residents boarded a bus to the State Capitol in Lansing.
A year ago the state stopped distributing bottled water to residents. In came Nestlé, the international giant that pays $200 per year to the state to suck 210 million gallons of water from mid-Michigan aquifers. Nestlé has scored a cheap PR public relations victory by distributing free bottled water to Flint residents, some of whom still pay more than $100 per month for water they don’t believe is safe to drink.
“The injustice of this situation could not be starker,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “At the same time the people of Flint are forced to drink bottled water, the state has authorized a water grab for $200 a year.”
Though national media look for heroes in the Flint water crisis―people like “Little Miss Flint” Mari Copeny, who was heralded on the TV show Good Morning America―the Flint water story remains an ongoing tragedy for most residents – impacting their health, homes, and hearts.
It’s a tragedy that has shone a spotlight on Michigan water issues―from drinking water in Flint and Detroit, to Nestlé’s bottled water heist, to the Line 5 oil pipeline under in the Straits of Mackinac.
Here’s a timeline of how the Flint water crisis unfolded:
On April 25, 2014, Flint switched its public water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. The move was meant to be temporary. A pipeline was being built to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) which would eventually bring water from Lake Huron. The financially driven move had its roots in an effort by a state-imposed Emergency Manager to save money for the financially troubled city. Switching to the KWA was projected to save the region $200 million over 25 years.
Though the Flint River had a reputation of being less than clean, officials sought to reassure the public.
“It’s regular, good, pure drinking water, and it’s right in our backyard,” said Mayor Dayne Walling. “This is the first step in the right direction for Flint, and we take this monumental step forward in controlling the future of our community’s most precious resource.”
In the ensuing five years, that decision has generated headlines worldwide as having poisoned an American city―one that’s majority black and where 40 percent of people live in poverty. Thirteen Flint residents have died of Legionnaire’s disease allegedly linked to the untreated water that corroded pipes and leached lead into the drinking water in people’s homes. Thousands of children were exposed to toxic lead levels: the effects on their brain development won’t be fully known for years.
Flint residents complained almost immediately of putrid yellow water in their drinking and bathing water that tasted toxic, burned their skin, and caused headaches. Detections of E. coli and coliform bacteria prompted the city to issue a boil water advisory and to increase chlorine levels. Six months after the water switch, the local General Motors auto plant announced it would stop using Flint River water, fearing corrosion in its machines.
But hamstrung by their fealty to an Emergency Manager appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the city’s response to the crisis was tragically late. The state’s response was tardier later still. A year after the watch switch, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that “the city did not have corrosion control treatment in place at the Flint Water Treatment Plant.” On July 13, 2015―15 months after the crisis began―MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel told Michigan Radio “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”
It wasn’t until September 2015 that drinking water expert Dr. Marc Edwards and his Virginia Tech students drove a van to Flint on behalf of concerned residents and detected “some of the worst (lead levels) that I have seen in more than 25 years working in the field.” MDEQ’s Wurfel dismissed Edwards’ findings. Later that month Hurley Medical Center’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha went with public with news that the percentage of Flint children with elevated lead levels in their blood surged after the water switch. Her research was also dismissed by the MDEQ.
Flint finally issued a lead advisory on Sept. 25, 2015. Snyder’s chief of staff responded that “some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football …” On Oct. 16, Flint switched back to the Detroit water supplier, but the damage to residents’ pipes, and to the drinking water supply was already done.
On Dec. 14, 2015 (nearly 20 months after the crisis began), newly elected Flint mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency. MDEQ officials resigned by the end of the month, and in January 2016, Snyder finally issued a state of emergency for Genesee County. Snyder testified before U.S. Congress in February but sought to deflect criticism toward local and federal agencies and not just his own state officials.
Five years after the Flint water crisis began, some residents don’t trust tap water anywhere, even when they travel outside of their city. Ebonie Gipson told MLive’s Fonger about ignoring a glass of water that was presented to her recently during a meal out of state. She left it untouched.
“For me, it really clicked that I just didn’t trust drinking water any more, no matter where I was,” said Gipson. “You don’t even realize it has impacted you for so long. To this day, I still have to coach myself and say it’s OK.”