Flint’s water is now safe to drink – but the crisis has corroded residents’ trust in government

A protest in Flint, Michigan, in February 2016. It took more than two years to make the water drinkable again. Image: Getty.

On 6 April 2018, with little warning, the state of Michigan closed water point of distribution (POD) centers that have provided residents in Flint for the past three years with bottled water to drink, cook and bathe. This move was based on analysis showing that the city’s water quality had tested below action levels defined in federal drinking water regulations for nearly two years.

The state’s decision to close the PODs signals that with respect to water quality, Flint’s water crisis is over. But for thousands of Flint residents, the trauma it inflicted persists.

The actions that lead up to the Flint water crisis did not occur in a vacuum. As a sociologist based in Michigan, whose research focuses on social inequality, racism and racial health disparities, I was driven to explore the context behind one of the most significant public health crises in modern history. Because film can be a powerful medium for conveying inequalities, I chose to direct and produce a documentary on the crisis.

My documentary, “Nor Any Drop to Drink: The Flint Water Crisis,” is scheduled for streaming and video-on-demand release in August 2018. From meeting Flint residents and talking to them about their water problems, I can see that more than pipes have been corroded. State and federal mishandling of the city’s water crisis has all but destroyed trust in government agencies among Flint’s residents.

‘We are an invisible people’

Flint’s water crisis is a story of bad decisions by government officials. In 2014, under a state-appointed emergency manager, Flint’s drinking water source was switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River, even though this move relied on a hastily refurbished and understaffed treatment plant. The state carried out inadequate and improper sampling of the water distribution system, in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Michigan officials disregarded and attempted to cover up compelling evidence of water quality problems and associated health effects. A spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality stated in 2015 that Flint residents “can relax,” despite their expressed concerns.

These repeated assurances exposed thousands to contaminated water. In the documentary, Nakiyah Wakes, a Flint mother who blames her miscarriages and adverse behavioral changes in her children on the water, exclaims:

“I do not trust the water and... I probably will never trust the water again. I’ve lost all trust in our government – federal, state, I have lost trust in everyone!”

Lendra Brown, a senior citizen living in Northwest Flint who also accepted the state’s assurances, lost 2 feet of her hair and still has rashes along her neck, jawline and legs. In one of the most poignant moments in the documentary, Brown states: “They are killing us... they killed us. We are an invisible people... and we don’t matter.”

Flint resident Nakiyah Wakes miscarried twins at the height of the Flint water crisis and blames the city’s water. Image: Daniel Bracken/creative commons.

Test results aren’t enough

Michigan officials ended the bottled water program after testing mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead & Copper Rule showed that 90 per cent of water samples collected in Flint this year contained an average of four parts per billion of lead – well below the 15 parts per billion federal threshold. According to the state, “Flint’s water is testing the same or better than similar cities across the state and country.”

However, this provides little reassurance to the community given the state’s record, as well as concerns about the pace of pipe replacement and the scope of water testing to date.

Flint’s FAST Start program, funded by state and federal agencies, has set a goal of replacing lead service lines that connect water mains to homes across the city by 2020. As of December 2017, over 6,000 pipes had been replaced, but approximately 12,000 lead service lines were still in place. Residents who were filmed, and who I still speak with regularly, worry that replacing lines may disrupt and release lead flakes into the water system. Further, pipes and fixtures inside many homes and businesses are old and corroded and could still leach lead.

Lead is not the only issue

The state’s rationale for ending the bottled water program is based on testing for lead, but for residents this has never been the only concern. In late 2014, there were reports of elevated levels of total trihalomethanes (TTHM), a group of water disinfection byproducts, some of which are classified as possible or probable carcinogens. And between June 2014 and November 2015, 87 cases of Legionnaires’ disease, a waterborne illness, were reported in surrounding Genesee County, resulting in 12 deaths. In February 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced evidence of a connection between city water and patients diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease.

Governor Rick Snyder’s office has said that water filters and replacement cartridges will remain available for people who are concerned about the process of service line replacements, or who “would feel more comfortable using a filter until their confidence in the water quality can be re-established”. This approach puts much responsibility on residents, who risk further problems from contaminated water if they do not properly install or maintain the filters. Further, according to the Genesee County Medical Society, the filters reduce but do not eliminate lead and other contaminants, such as bacteria.

Buying bottled water is not an option for many of the 45 per cent of Flint residents who live below the poverty line. Therefore, families who have children or members with compromised immune systems – two groups who are especially vulnerable to water contamination – now may have no choice but to take a chance on the city’s water.

High-ranking officials in Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration were aware of a surge in Legionnaires’ disease potentially linked to Flint’s water long before Snyder reported the increase to the public, internal emails show.

Who matters?

Nor Any Drop to Drink” is ultimately a story about power, and about who really matters. Michigan has had to commit more than $350m to Flint to fund water quality improvements, pipe replacements, health care and educational resources. The free bottled water program was costing the state an estimated $653,075 per month on average. Participants in the documentary say they believe their government’s decisions have prioritized controlling costs, not their health and well-being. Ending the bottled water program is consistent with that philosophy.


The ConversationFrom the start of this crisis, state officials have controlled much of the narrative about drinking water safety. What residents knew didn’t matter for many months, and they suffered as a result. From the community’s standpoint, stopping the bottled water program looks like an effort to close the book on this issue. Flint residents fear that Michigan may shirk its responsibility to make long-term, expensive fixes, and that the world now has permission to stop paying attention to their ongoing water problems.

Cedric Taylor, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Central Michigan University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.