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Flint marks ten years since the start of the city's drinking water crisis

A decade after the ill-fated switch of Flint's water source which led to lead contamination in the city's drinking water, Flint residents still do not trust the water flowing from their taps is safe to drink
Steve Carmody
Michigan Public
A decade after the ill-fated switch of Flint's water source which led to lead contamination in the city's drinking water, Flint residents still do not trust the water flowing from their taps is safe to drink

Ten years ago, a devastating water crisis began in the city of Flint.

Its water was tainted with lead, placing a spotlight on the quality of the nation’s drinking water.

A lot has changed, but many residents don’t believe they’ve changed enough.

On April 25, 2014, then-Flint mayor Dayne Walling pressed the button symbolically switching the city’s drinking water source to the Flint River. He and other community leaders then toasted the switch with plastic glasses filled with tap water.

“I have a great deal of shame and regret about that ceremony,” said Dayne Walling earlier this year, “because of everything that came after.”

When he talks about “everything that came after,” Walling’s referring to Flint’s drinking water crisis.

Improperly treated river water damaged pipes, released lead into the water and made the city’s drinking water undrinkable.

Not surprisingly, Walling was voted out of the office a year later.

The decision to switch water sources was made by a state emergency financial manager.

The intent of the water switch was to save money and fix the city’s multi-million-dollar budget deficit.

The result was hundreds of millions of dollars spent to fix Flint’s water system and help the community heal.

Walling blames the water crisis on the man who placed Flint under emergency management: former Governor Rick Snyder.

“The buck on all of these decisions stopped with Governor Snyder,” said Walling, “Critical decisions made it to his desk and it was a disastrous era of leadership in this state.”

Gov. Snyder was among more than dozen government officials criminally charged in connection with the Flint water crisis. Some officials were even charged with multiple counts of involuntary manslaughter due to deaths from legionnaires disease related to Flint water. But problems with two separate state investigations eventually led to the all charges being dropped.

A spokeswoman for former Gov. Snyder said “he is not doing interviews on Flint water.”

While the criminal case has fallen apart, there’s been success for Flint residents in civil courts. In 2021, the state of Michigan, city of Flint and some businesses agreed to settle tens of thousands of claims brought by Flint residents.

The settlement pot has grown to more than $650 million. But the process of determining who’s eligible for a share of the settlement has dragged on much longer than expected.

“There were some hiccups,” said Ted Leopold, the settlement’s co-lead plaintiffs’ counsel, “I think it’s fair to say that the scope and breathe of the claims process was greater than I think everybody expected.”

Leopold hopes the first checks will go out by the end of this year.

In a court filing this month, Deborah Greenspan, the court appointed Special Master to oversee the review process, wrote that she hopes the initial phase of the review process will be complete by the end of June. But the appeals process will take longer.

Most of the money in the settlement has been set aside for those who were children during the early days of the crisis. The lawyers will also divide about $200 million in attorneys’ fees.

Is Flint’s tap water safe to drink? That question remains, ten years later.

The answer to that question is “complex,” according to Eric Oswald. He is the director of the drinking water division of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Oswald said tests of Flint’s tap water continue to show the presence of lead, but the levels are within federal and state standards.

“Safe means different things to different people,” said Oswald, “The definition of safe that we use is the standards that are contained in the Safe Drinking Water Act…and those are changing.”

This fall, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to update regulations that would give most cities until the late 2030s to replace lead pipes connecting homes and businesses to city water mains.

Since the water crisis, replacing lead pipes has been a priority in Flint.

Since 2016, the city has replaced more than 10,000 lead service lines.

But a federal judge recently found Flint in “civil contempt” for failing to meet a deadline to remove all the city’s lead service lines. There could be hundreds of lead pipes still underground, though the exact number is unclear.

And it’s not just Flint.

“Everybody remembers what happened in Flint. There are hundreds of Flints all across America,” said President Joe Biden, as he touted his infrastructure bill back in 2021.

There are an estimated nine million lead service lines in need of replacement across the U.S.

“The fundamental problem is that EPA’s rules for lead in drinking water are so weak,” said Erik D. Olson, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, “The enforcement has been so poor that cities across the country have continued to have lead contamination and frankly there’s been virtually no enforcement of those regulations and there’s gaping holes in the rules.”

On a recent Thursday morning outside Greater Holy Temple church in Flint, a forklift was busy shifting pallets.

Cars and trucks were lined up about a mile down the road, waiting for the church’s weekly drive thru food pantry to open.

The food pantry started during the early days of Flint’s water crisis for people in need of bottled water. Cases of canned water and loose water bottles are still the first things to run out.

82-year-old Carol Harris is among those in line, as she has been every week since 2016, when she stopped using Flint water.

“I don’t drink it. I don’t cook with it. I don’t trust it. Not at all,” Harris said as she sat in her truck, “They say it’s OK, I bet they're not drinking it.”

Safe or not, it appears repairing Flint residents’ trust in the city’s tap water will likely take much longer than fixing the system itself.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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