The ‘unconscionable’ water crisis in Flint: How politicians failed — and poisoned — the public
Lee and Ernie Perez knew something was amiss when their three cats started throwing up after drinking water.
In 2014, the longtime residents of Flint, Michigan, were dealing with the same circumstances that had consumed most of the town. The problems began in April that year, after the city switched its water source and started pulling water from a local river as a cost-saving measure. Almost immediately, residents levied complaints about the smelly, discolored and disgusting fluid that was now flowing into their households.
So the Perezes shut off their taps. They started purchasing bottled water – to cook, drink and bathe. Their three cats, along with a feral feline who lived outside, switched over, too.
“They all get bottled water,” Lee Perez said.
More than a year later, the Rust Belt city of 100,000 is still reeling from the effects of a water supply that was found last fall to have been poisoned with extremely high levels of lead. Just this week, officials reported that they witnessed a spike in Legionnaires’ disease – a severe form of pneumonia – after Flint began using the water from the Flint river that proved problematic. While causation is still unknown, scientists studying the water problem predicted a spike in the disease.
And the evidence is mounting that federal, state and local officials ignored or neglected indicators of a growing water crisis.
As early as October 2014, there were problematic signs. A local General Motors engine plant stopped using water from the Flint river because parts were becoming rusted , but officials nevertheless continued to reassure residents the water was safe to drink – a decision deemed “unconscionable” by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton this week.
Tests also revealed elevated levels of chemical compounds in the water supply that can lead to liver or kidney issues. Nonetheless, officials downplayed residents’ concerns, saying – confidently – that the water was safe to drink.
In February, results from independent studies began to trickle out. One from a coalition that included residents, Virginia Tech researchers, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan showed the highly corrosive Flint river was leaching lead off water pipes before flowing into households across the city of 100,000; another, from a local pediatrician, showed an increase in Flint children with elevated levels of lead.
Officials vehemently disputed the research until, in October, governor Rick Snyder admitted the situation was far graver than he initially understood and announced a $12m plan to transfer Flint back to its previous supply with the city of Detroit.
Snyder also appointed a task force to investigate what caused the crisis. Last month, the group released a scathing report that placed blame chiefly on the state’s environmental department – from failing to properly treat the Flint river to officials belittling responses to public outcry. The federal government is also investigating what happened .
In the meantime, residents are left trying to cope with the gravity of a manmade public health debacle. And they want answers.
“Well, he should’ve done it a long time ago,” resident Barbara Cowan said of Snyder’s response, while she was picking up a case of water on Thursday that is now being distributed by the National Guard and the Red Cross.
“He ignored it,” she continued. “He’s [chosen] to ignore it, because he didn’t live in Flint.”
On Thursday, the Perezes joined a seemingly never-ending stream of residents that flowed into the city’s no. 5 firehouse, where Red Cross volunteers have been handing out cases of bottled water to anyone in need. The water resource center, one of five currently operating in the city, has been busy: The previous day, Red Cross personnel at the site handed out nearly 700 cases of water, said volunteer Peggy Zuehlk.
But even with clean water to drink, the Perezes still had additional concerns.
The cats don’t vomit anymore, but the couple says they still don’t feel comfortable showering in whatever’s coming through their pipes.
“The itch, it’s just unbelievable,” Ernie Perez, 73, said of the effect the water has on his body. “It’s not an itch like you got a little mosquito bite or something.”
Lee jumped in: “It’s like a hot prickling needle that’s all over your body. And as seniors, we can’t take that.” Adding to their exasperation is the hefty price for unusable tap water in Flint, which has some of the highest water rates in the country .
“We flush our toilet,” said Lee Perez, “and we pay $109 a month.”
Snyder ordered the National Guard on Tuesday to assist the state at the water resource sites established across Flint, where residents say they are still struggling to grapple with the reality that lead-contaminated water flowed into their households for months.
The state has also requested additional assistance from the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Late Thursday, Snyder asked Barack Obama to declare the area surrounding Flint in a state of emergency to expedite the response to the growing water contamination problem.
Low exposure to lead, a powerful neurotoxin, can produce long-term health effects, particularly in young children in the form of behavioral problems or lower IQ. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no safe level of lead exposure.
What’s now known is that state environmental officials improperly applied federal regulations to ensure water is treated properly. The governor-appointed task force said the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) department bears “primary responsibility for what happened in Flint”.
That task force found that water from the corrosive Flint river leached lead off household pipes and flowed into the system because Flint hadn’t been required by the state environmental body to use corrosion control to treat the water. The report also found that the tone and substance of the state environmental division’s public statements were “completely unacceptable”, the report said.
“It’s unconscionable what happened here,” Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, who helped lead a team that tested water samples of nearly 300 homes in the city, told the Guardian last fall of the state’s decision to not require Flint to use corrosion control to treat the river. Edwards also “predicted, based on our prior research there would be higher levels of Legionella, due to the lack of corrosion control”.
Between June 2014 and November 2015, there were 87 cases in Genesee County, where Flint is located, of which 10 resulted in death, according to the state, although it is not yet known whether the disease is linked to the water.
In early July, in response to the release of an internal Environmental Protection Agency memo raising concerns about Flint’s water source, state officials downplayed concerns.
“Let me start here – anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax,” spokesman Brad Wurfel said at the time.
Later that month, Snyder’s then-chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, wrote an email saying Flint residents aren’t “getting the benefit of the doubt” over water issues.
“Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from (MDEQ) samples,” Muchmore said in the email obtained by Edwards. “These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”
Officials responded to Muchmore by saying there’s nothing to worry about in Flint. Snyder’s spokespeople have said Muchmore’s remarks reflect how the governor’s administration was engaged with the community.
But MDEQ should have had a more accurate assessment of the situation, according to the auditor general’s report released in December. The report noted that MDEQ officials were aware in March 2015 that Flint’s lead water levels were already above enforcement action thresholds set by the EPA.
Observers have also pointed their finger at the EPA for its handling of the situation.
Henry Henderson, midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the EPA has authority under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to take emergency actions in crises like in Flint.
“It’s become painfully obvious that every level of government, including but not limited to the EPA … haven’t felt no urgency about this matter at all,” Henderson said, “have been shockingly lackadaisical, [and] have made inappropriate statements in public in terms of the safety of the situation, which is wildly unsafe.”
I think it’d be safe to say there was a cover-up
The EPA’s regional administrator told the Detroit News this week that federal officials chose to implore the MDEQ to respond to the situation, rather than take action itself, despite knowing for months that Flint wasn’t properly using corrosion control to treat its water.
Henderson said the administrator, Susan Hedman, could be “disingenuous or just remarkably ignorant about her responsibilities and her power to affect those responsibilities”. Federal law authorizes EPA administrators to take action to deal with issues like the Flint water crisis, he said.
In an email obtained by the Guardian, dated 20 August, from EPA program manager Jennifer Crooks to three MDEQ officials, she asked for a copy of a letter sent to Flint notifying the city of high lead levels.
“Flint has sure gotten a lot of attention over the past year; I’m going to stay positive,” Crooks wrote. “And say that I hope this all dies down once they connect to the Karegnondi pipeline (in 2016).”
A quest for cheaper water
The water problems stemmed from a decision to use the Flint river as a more affordable water supply. The policy was aimed at easing the financial uncertainty looming over the city, where more than 40% of the predominantly black population lives below the poverty line. Flint has been throttled for decades by a depleted tax base as manufacturing jobs moved elsewhere – a problem compounded by a subsequent spike in violence that has routinely placed the community high on the list of violent US cities.
But it is the city’s lead-tainted water disaster that has left residents and activists asking questions about how this could have happened.
The governor’s office declined to answer questions about what role it played in the decision-making process that led to Flint using the local river as its main water source, but what is clear is that the lead-contamination crisis took place while the city was under the control of Snyder-appointed emergency managers.
In late 2011, as Flint’s finances continued to worsen, Snyder appointed an emergency financial manager with vast powers to oversee the city’s finances – and effectively rendered local elected officials powerless. In the intervening months, state and city officials began discussing the most affordable water option for Flint.
By March 2013, it was decided Flint would join a new water system and leave Detroit, with the hope of obtaining more affordable rates for residents. Though Flint was still under the control of an emergency manager, that month city council members overwhelmingly approved a resolution to join a new regional water system in 2016.
But there was a problem: the Detroit water system, realizing Flint was set to leave, increased the city’s rates and gave it a one-year notice to renegotiate a short-term contract until 2016, or find a different water supply. Without Detroit, Flint would need a temporary water source until the new regional system came online.
As late as February 2014, the option for Flint to use Detroit’s system in the interim was still on the table. The following month, however, then-Flint emergency manager, Darnell Earley, wrote a letter to Detroit water officials – obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which broke the story of Flint’s lead water crisis – saying he expects “that the Flint Water Treatment Plant will be fully operational and capable of treating Flint River.”
“In that case, there will be no need for Flint to continue purchasing water to serve its residents and businesses after April 17, 2014,” wrote Earley, who’s now the emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools.
‘He’s trying to save face’
On Thursday, outside a water resource center near downtown Flint, Larry Ross said elected officials from the top down carry responsibility.
“I believe that the governor, the state, and the powers that be, I think it’d be safe to say there was a cover-up. I think they were trying to take the cheapest way out as far as restoring this water condition,” Ross said. “If it wasn’t for the national exposure, I think they would’ve left things the way they are.”
A line snaked out the door and continued to grow as residents tried to stay warm in frigid January temperatures. Motorists double-parked their vehicles throughout the firehouse’s lot, leaving little room to navigate. Observing nearby, Flint’s fire chief, David Cox Jr, said the chaotic scene illustrated the “plight of the city”.
“Anytime that truck is delivering it’s going to get crazy out here,” said David Cox Jr, the city’s fire chief. “And this is only one station; it’s like this everywhere at all fire stations.”
Residents say they’re grateful to see the influx of supplies and assistance. But Lee-Anne Walters, the Flint mother who first reached out to EPA officials in early 2015 with concerns about her tap water, said Snyder’s response still leaves much to be desired.
Last year, Walters’ son, Gavin, was diagnosed with lead poisoning and has since developed speech impediments, she said. When Edwards, the Virginia Tech researcher tested her water, the results were astounding: one test returned a result that Walters’ water was filled with 13,200 parts per billion (ppb) of lead, substantially higher than levels deemed safe by the EPA. (At 5,000ppb, water is considered hazardous waste.)
“I still feel like he’s trying to save face to save his career rather than try to save the people,” Walters said of Snyder’s response to the crisis.
The announcement this week that city officials will begin shutting off water to residents with unpaid bills will likely cause additional grumbling, amid the ongoing controversy.
But the chief concern for now remains obtaining clean water.
While Ross and others waited their turn to pick up a jug and case of water, a volunteer emerged from the door and shouted: “Everybody listen up, for the first time we have water testing kits … everybody should be walking out of here with a water testing kit, even if you just came for water.”
As more residents started filling inside, the volunteer tried to offer a silver-lining: “At least it’s not snowy today.”
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