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Flint's water crisis: Who Pays?

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

High levels of lead in their drinking water have Flint residents relying on cases of bottled water for just about everything.  

It may come as no surprise that thousands of those residents have stopped paying their water bills.  

And that presents both questions and problems.    

Last week, Lynna Kaucheck handed a stack of papers to a staffer outside Flint’s mayor’s office.

“This is 21,000 petition signatures from people across the country calling on you to issue a moratorium on drinking water bills,” Kaucheck told Flint City Administrator Natasha Henderson as she handed her the petitions.

Kaucheck is with the group Food and Water Watch.   She says it’s wrong to make people in Flint pay for water they can’t drink.

“All of this is a lot for people to handle,” says Kaucheck, “And enough is enough, the Flint residents need relief.”

More than a quarter of Flint water customers stopped paying their water bills last fall, after it was confirmed that their drinking water was contaminated with lead. 

That’s cost the city millions of dollars. Potentially, the city may not have enough money in the future to pay for repairing broken water mains and replacing sewer lines.  And those that argue that Flint residents shouldn’t have to pay for tainted drinking water now have a new ally: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

“I concur with the thought that people should not have to pay for water they couldn’t drink,” Snyder told reporters Wednesday.

Snyder is asking the legislature to give the city of Flint $30 million to cover the cost of water.  The governor says Flint residents still should pay the part of their bills that support the water and sewer system.

“But in respect to the part that people didn’t want to pay for it because they have to drink it or didn’t drink it, we want to take care of that piece in particular,” says Snyder.

The governor’s plan would provide credit for water bills dating back to April of 2014, when the city’s tap water source was switched to the Flint River. It was the failure to properly treat that river water that damaged the city’s pipes which continue to leach lead into the drinking water. 

Snyder says he and city officials still have to figure out exactly how to credit Flint water customers for the tainted water that they already paid for. 

But a credit is not enough for some Flint residents. 

A federal class action lawsuit is seeking $150 million in refunds and damages. 

Attorney Billy Murphy says the lawsuit he filed this week will compensate Flint residents for paying for water that he calls “incredibly dangerous.” 

“The city, the state, the local government officials, the governor, all know that this was catastrophically wrong,” Murphy told reporters Tuesday, “And that the citizens should not be made to add insult to injury by having to pay for dangerous, dirty, non-drinkable, non-usable water.”

Flint residents are paying about 8 times the national average for water. 

Neither the governor’s plan nor the lawsuit will bring immediate relief to Flint residents who still can’t trust the water coming out of their kitchen faucet and are still getting a water and sewer bill in the mail every month.

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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