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Flint's state of emergency - one year later

steve carmody
Michigan Radio
Stacks of bottled water sit in Flint's MTA downtown bus station

A year ago today, Flint, Michigan’s mayor declared a state of emergency because of lead contaminated drinking water.  

That attracted national outrage and sympathy, as well as millions of gallons of donated water.

But a year later, donations have slowed to a trickle and unfiltered water is still unsafe to drink.

From their hometown streets to the halls of the nation’s capital, Flint residents have spent 2016 demanding drinkable water.

But as the year nears its end little has really changed.

With frigid temperatures and flurries swirling around outside, the crowd inside Flint’s downtown transit station ebbs and flows as buses come and go. 

At one end of the bus terminal, ten large pallets of bottled water stand about four feet high.  

Keith Hill fills two bags with about 20 pounds of water bottles, before making the long trek home.   He hates doing this.  

“Yeah, it’s pretty much bad because we can’t do nothing about it,” says Hill, “and they ain’t doing nothing about it…and the city of Flint is going down and that’s making it worse.”

Many feel Flint’s decades old economic struggles have only been made worse by this crisis, and say despite all the attention, there’s little progress.    

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver is also frustrated.

“We’re in year three actually of not being able to drink water,” says Weaver, “and that still makes no sense to me and it shouldn’t make sense to anybody else.”

Flint’s drinking water issues date back to 2014, when its source was switched to the Flint River.   Mistakes treating the corrosive river water damaged pipes which continue to leech lead.    

Despite tests showing lead levels declining, many Flint residents don’t believe their tap water will ever be safe to drink again. 

Flint is getting some help though.    

The state has spent more than $200 million, distributing more than 3 million cases of bottled water and 145 thousand water filters. State officials are trying to convince Flint residents to use the filters.

But many in Flint just don’t trust the filters.   

Last week, Congress finally approved $170 million in aid, though city officials say they’ll need tens of millions more to replace the city’s lead pipes. 

The state says about 600 pipes have been replaced this year, but at that rate it would take decades to replace the more than 30 thousand suspect lines.

Michael McDaniel oversees that effort.  

“It was a matter of the city really lacking not just the finances,” says McDaniel, “but because they lacked the finances for so long they lacked the capacity.”

While McDaniel expects the pace to speed up, it will still take years and cost more than $100 million. 

And then there are the legal battles.

There are more than 400 civil lawsuits, some of them class actions, and there are the criminal cases.

Nine government employees have already been charged with tampering with evidence and willful neglect of office.  Two have cut deals with a special prosecutor. More charges could be coming.       

At the end of a difficult year, some Flint residents are trying to put the water crisis aside to get in the Christmas spirit.

A few days ago a small crowd gathered outside Flint city hall to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season.     

But even at a Christmas event, Flint’s water crisis is not far away.

As a choir sang outside city hall, many in the crowd moved inside, where their kids could sit on Santa’s lap.  Adults could do something they’ve been doing all year long, picking up some bottled water to take home.

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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