Flint, Michigan: An Update

By: Keren Neugroschl  |  May 9, 2017


It has been over a year since Flint, Michigan dominated the news. A year since we were bombarded with stories of people unable to drink the water from their sinks and children dealing with lead poisoning. After being the center of the media’s attention for several months, Flint was forgotten. However, the people in Flint were suffering before the media or officials took notice and are still suffering today, when they are no longer the center of media attention.

Flint is a small city near Detroit; 41.2% of Flint residents live below the poverty line. Before the 1980s, Flint was a flourishing city with a large General Motors plant, but when GM downsized, Flint’s economy took a large hit. The city’s economy continued to dive until 2011, when a financial state of emergency was declared in Flint after the city deficit reaches $25.7 million. This allowed the state of Michigan to take over the city’s budget and an emergency financial manager was chosen by Governor Rick Snyder to cut the budget in any way possible.

In 2010, a $270 million project began to create lines that would provide water to areas of Michigan, including Flint, from Lake Huron. The new line would be cheaper than purchasing the water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which is what Flint was doing up until that point. By 2011 Flint was in a state of emergency, so the city looked into using the Flint River for water as a temporary money-saving action until the new pipeline was built.

However, a study was done which determined that, in order for the change to be done safely, an anti-corrosion agent would be needed to treat the water to ensure that it does not corrode the lead pipes. Despite these findings, the water was not treated.

In 2014, Flint community leaders including the mayor, Dayne Walling, drank the water to gain the public’s trust in its safety. Shortly after, the Flint River became the city’s water source as a temporary fix until there was a line from Lake Huron to Flint that would take about two years to build.

However, the initiative did not go as planned. Research done by Virginia Tech found that the water in the Flint River was nineteen times more corrosive than the water in Lake Huron. Within a month, although both state and city officials claimed that the water was still perfectly safe, residents found that the water was brown and tasted and smelled bad. Some residents reported developing rashes and being concerned with bacteria in the water.

Soon after, city officials were forced to issue boil-water advisories after bacteria including e-coli and coliform are found in the water. Instead of fixing the issue, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said that the advisories were due to aging pipes and cold weather. However, at the same time GM stopped using Flint water at their plant because it was causing the car parts to rust.

After over half a year of residents complaining, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department proposed to reverse the changes and again provide Flint with water from Lake Huron. The department even offered to waive the $4 million fee to reconnect the city. However, Flint officials refused the offer. Jerry Ambrose, the emergency manager at the time, said that it would still cost too much to reverse the changes because the city would have to pay $1 million a month to Detroit and would have to rebuild the pipe that they already disassembled.

In February of 2015, the situation escalated when both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and DEQ in Michigan found lead in the water. That summer, the danger of the water in Flint was exposed when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) leaked a memo from the EPA which showed that in one Flint resident’s home the lead levels were so high that lead poisoning was a serious concern for her child. However, after the leak, the regional EPA cautioned the mayor not to make any conclusions based on the memo.

Despite the EPA’s statement, Virginia Tech decided to conduct their own research and found that there were elevated levels of lead in many Flint homes. The DEQ responded by saying that the Virginia Tech findings were false. However, a Flint pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, found that her patients in specific areas of Flint had double or triple the normal level of lead in their blood. The State of Michigan responded by disputing Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s statement, but quickly retracted it a week later.

Once it was clear how dangerous the water in Flint was, in October of 2015 Flint reversed their actions and started to use Lake Huron as their water supply again. In addition, residents were told not to drink, cook or bathe with the water. Researchers from Virginia Tech still found lead in the water after this switch because of the damage that was done to the pipes.

The DEQ acknowledged that they “made a mistake” after experts found that had the anti-corrosion agent been added to the water, 90% of the problems with Flint’s water could have been avoided. That November, Flint residents filed a federal class-action lawsuit against many defendants including the city, the DEQ director, the governor, and the state. Shortly after, the director of DEQ resigned.

At the start of 2016, Gov. Snyder recognized the scope of the health emergency in Flint and took steps to remedy the problem. He asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for help, ordered the Michigan National Guard to distribute water and requested federal aid through a declaration of a state of emergency from President Obama. He then went to the state legislature to ask for $28 million to pay for water filters, bottled water and treatment for children affected by the high levels of lead. In addition, he released hundreds of emails related to the situation in Flint which revealed that DEQ knew that the water was possibly corrosive long before any action was taken on the issue.

Amid Gov. Snyder’s efforts to remedy the situation, a hospital in Flint found Legionnaires’ disease bacteria in the water. Although the levels of the bacteria were low and “within safety and quality standards,” the findings added to the concerns over Flint residents’ safety.

Despite the health concerns, help was slow to come. A $600 million plan was proposed in the U.S. Senate to provide aid to Flint, but some Senators dismissed the bill saying that the issue should be solved by state and local governments. The Michigan state legislature provided $28 million to Flint, specifically towards treatment for children, paying water bills, better medical attention for children in school and resources to study the water infrastructure of the city, but this money was not enough. The city did research and concluded that $55 million was needed to remove and replace the lead water pipes. Specifically, Mayor Karen Weaver asked that the state government fund the project. Virginia Tech conducted more research and concluded that while the water was slightly better after the limited aid, filters and bottled water were still recommended.

The fallout from the health crisis continued, as it was made clear that officials knew about the health concerns before releasing this information to the public. It was revealed that Gov. Snyder’s office knew about Legionnaires’ disease bacteria in the water nearly a year before announcing it to the residents of Flint, and the DEQ told the office that the water was not safe. In addition, the DEQ and the mayor’s office knew that GM chose to stop using Flint water because of its corrosiveness.

In April of 2016, people who were involved in the crisis in Flint began to be charged. A range of people, including water plant officials, state environmental officials, state workers and emergency managers, have been charged with a range of misdemeanors and felonies. In addition, Flint residents have been involved with numerous class-action lawsuits against the departments that failed them which are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although many of those responsible for the crisis are now being brought to justice, the problems in Flint are far from over. While the state has allotted $87 million to replace thousands of Flint’s water pipes, the water is still not completely safe. This past November, a federal judge ordered state and local officials to deliver bottled water to any home without a proper filter.

Now more than 8,000 residents are being told that if they do not pay their water bills, for water that is still undrinkable, their homes will be foreclosed. In a city with a large percentage of its residents living under the poverty line, some residents are being told that they have to pay $1,000 by May 19. While Mayor Weaver has expressed concern for the residents and vowed to find a way to stop these actions, the residents of Flint can hardly find a reason to begin trusting their government officials.