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In Flint, trust in filters – and government – elusive

Flint resident Michael Poole says he has enough water in his basement, "I could probably put it in a big ol' barrel and take a shower for days."
Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio
Flint resident Michael Poole says he has enough water in his basement, "I could probably put it in a big ol' barrel and take a shower for days."

Michael Poole doesn’t buy the line that filtered tap water is safe for him and his neighbors to drink.

“There may be a day when I might be able to trust” the water, he says. “But until then, I’m getting this right here.”

“This right here” is more than a dozen cases of bottled water, loaded into Poole’s dark blue pickup truck as B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” blared from the speakers.

Two days after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new guidance – that Flint tap water is safe for everyone to drink if it’s run through approved filters – there was a steady stream people taking advantage of the bottled water giveaway at Salem Lutheran Church.  The pastor here, Monica Villareal, says demand hasn’t really let up in the months since the giveaways started several months ago. The church gives away about 40,000 pounds of water a week. It’s one of several distribution sites around the city.

Maybe not surprisingly at a bottled water distribution site, no one I talk to says they trust that filtered water is safe to drink.

“I don’t trust it,” says Albert Hawkins. “I just don’t trust what they’re saying.”

The EPA says tests on water filters the state is distributing show they remove lead well below the federal action level. So the agency – which had recommended bottled water for vulnerable people like pregnant women and young children – now says filtered water is safe for everyone.

Broken filters, broken trust

Michael Hood says he doesn’t dispute the science. But he says the recommendation doesn’t take into account how people are actually using the filters.

Credit Stephanie Kenner / Crossing Water
Crossing Water
Michael Hood and Laurie Carpenter, founders of the humanitarian aid group Crossing Water.

Hood runs a small humanitarian aid group in Flint called Crossing Water. The group has kept track of filter use at the homes it visits.

“Anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of folks that we’re seeing have filters that are not working,” Hood says, adding that it’s irresponsible to tell people it’s safe to drink filtered water when so many people aren’t using filters correctly.

“They are broken. They are not installed properly. Don’t have faucets that accommodate them. Or they (Flint residents) can’t read the instructions because there’s a very high illiteracy rate in the city of Flint.”

The EPA acknowledges these are real problems in Flint. But officials there say they’ve been working hard to educate Flint residents about the proper use of filters – both through home visits, and workshops they’ve staged across the city.

“So I really think as it pertains to getting the community more comfortable with this issue, it’s just going to have to be something that we continuously engage them on,” says Micah Ragland, associate administrator for public engagement and environmental education at the EPA.

A caregiver making the best of a tough situation

On one of Crossing Water’s home visits on Saturday, I meet Darlene Johnson.

Johnson is raising three grandchildren and two teenaged sons. Her 87-year-old mother lives with her, too. She has Alzheimer’s, and doesn’t leave the house.

Johnson’s 19-year-old son stays in the room next to his grandmother's. He’s recovering from a motorcycle accident last July that split his skull.

“At Hurley Hospital (last year), we were there for 34 days,” Johnson says. “The water was yellow.”

Credit Claudia Pimentel / Crossing Water
Crossing Water
Crossing Water visits homes, making sure residents know how to properly use and maintain faucet filters.

Johnson says her son's head wound got infected in the hospital. One side of his skull still hasn’t healed all the way.

“I’ve been buying wound cleaner, I clean it with wound cleaner and saline,” she says. “I don’t use water on his head. I haven’t washed it yet.”

Johnson says she doesn’t let her family drink the tap water. But she does have a filter on her kitchen faucet. Randi Friedman, a volunteer from Crossing Water, asks Johnson if she can take a look.

“I can’t see a light on the filter,” Friedman says.

“It was blinking red,” Johnson tells her.

“Which means it’s time to change it,” Friedman says.

Johnson points to the box of replacement cartridges she was given along with the filter. She has a filter made by one company, but cartridges made by another.

Will people ever trust the water again?

Johnson says she won’t believe water quality is improving in Flint until she sees the city’s lead pipes getting replaced. But that effort has been stalled, as the cost for the project far exceeded what city officials anticipated.

Meanwhile, some residents say they don’t foresee a day when they’ll ever have faith in the safety of their drinking water.

Vanessa Terrell's granddaughter calls her "OG," but it doesn't stand for what you might think. She's "Officer Granny" in her neighborhood, where she delivers bottled water to her elderly neighbors.
Credit Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Vanessa Terrell's granddaughter calls her "OG," but it doesn't stand for what you might think. She's "Officer Granny" in her neighborhood, where she delivers bottled water to her elderly neighbors.

“As long as I’m in Flint, I don’t ever think I’ll drink from the tap again,” says Vanessa Terrell. Terrell moved back to Flint in 2011, after 30 years in California. She’s raising her granddaughter Faith, who she says started having cognitive problems shortly after the water crisis began.

“Faith was a child that never put her shoes on the wrong feet. Now she puts them on the wrong feet,” Terrell says. She says conversations with Faith reminded her of talking to someone with dementia. “She could be talking to you, and could not get the next word to come. I’m really upset. I’m hoping it’s not the water.”

Terrell doesn’t have a car. She takes her wagon to collect bottled water, and delivers it to her neighbors. She says they’re living like pioneers in Flint – fetching water, washing their bodies "like nobody else in America has to wash."

But she says she’s here to stay.

“I cannot leave knowing that seniors are here, children are here,” Terrell says. “I just can’t walk away from them like that."

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
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