Is the Flint Water Crisis Really Over? Residents and Experts Have Something to Say About It

As Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declares an end to the Flint water crisis and halts distribution of free bottles of water to the city’s residents, experts say the challenges facing Flint have not ended, in light of the ongoing effects of the lead and microbiological poisoning of the water supply and the still incomplete abatement process.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Four years after the start of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan — in which the city’s water supply was poisoned with lead and biological toxins — Gov. Rick Snyder declared the crisis is over. But is this truly the case?

The Michigan state government announced this week it would no longer supply free bottled water to Flint residents. Snyder claims that for nearly two years, Flint’s water is the same or better than other cities in Michigan. “The scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended,” the Republican governor said in the statement. “Since Flint’s water is now well within the standards set by the federal government, we will now focus even more of our efforts on continuing with the health, education and economic development assistance needed to help move Flint forward.”

The move by the governor comes over two years since Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and then-President Obama declared a state of emergency in response to the human-created environmental disaster. In 2014, the Flint emergency manager appointed by Snyder replaced the city’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint River as a money-saving measure. As a result, residents began complaining of bad-tasting and smelly brown tap water, along with symptoms such as headaches and rashes, hair loss, miscarriages, illness and behavioral issues among children, and infectious diseases such as a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.

Flint has a population of roughly 100,000, according to the U.S. Census. Median household income is $25,650, and 41.9 percent of the residents live below the poverty line. African-Americans are a slight majority with 54 percent of the population, with whites at 38 percent and Latinos at 4 percent.

Experts and people on the ground in Flint, including those who are directly impacted by the water crisis, note some improvements but suggest the crisis has not yet subsided.

“From our perspective, certainly is there some encouraging news. It does appear the lead levels are coming down, from the testing that is being done,” Erik Olson, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Atlanta Black Star. “But the crisis is not over. The crisis was never just about lead. There was a big problem with microbiological contamination with legionella that killed a dozen people that was linked to water.” Olson noted the water contamination in Flint is an extreme example of what a few other cities such as Newark are experiencing. He argues the community remains deeply distrustful and traumatized when they are reassured the water is safe, comparing the government to someone who has repeatedly lied to you and now must earn your trust back. Many people in the community have expressed their concerns, he said, but not all problems with the city’s water supply have been addressed or publicly discussed, such as bacterial contamination.

“They don’t trust the government with good reason. There are criminal indictments, and I think overall there is room for the community to deserve some additional ongoing trust-building by the government,” Olson said. A year ago, NRDC was responsible for a $100 million settlement on behalf of community groups in Flint that included pulling out all the lead service lines and a requirement for independent testing of the water. Olson says the Flint water source has been switched and several thousand water lines have been removed, but thousands more must be removed. Thousands of filters have been installed, which is crucial. In the meantime, people do not trust the tap, and they want bottled water.

“Our take is there are promising signs,” Olson noted, “but we are not out of the woods yet.” He noted that it is important to have water filters and bottled water as the lead pipes are being replaced, given that shaking up the lead pipes allows the lead to shake loose.

Melissa Mays, a Flint resident, activist and mother of three boys, is not happy with Snyder and other officials for their mishandling of the water crisis. “I take serious issue with the man, agency and elected officials who originally denied the crisis even existed for over a year think that it is proper to declare OUR crisis over without event talking to us,” Mays said to Atlanta Black Star via email. “The Governor still has yet to address the residents face-to-face, that he helped put into the crisis.”

Mays notes that only one-third of the water lines have been replaced in Flint, with two years and 12,000 more lines to go. “Add to that, lead is not the only contaminant in Flint’s tap water. We have had deaths from bacteria and have had to shower in cancer-causing disinfection by-products for nearly 4 years. The Governor and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality refuse to expand testing and completely disregard independent testing and researchers the community has brought in,” Mays added.

“Our trust in our water and our government has been destroyed and these same people are not doing anything to regain it by continuing to dismiss the concerns of the residents, water experts, physicians, engineers and more who all say that the water will not be safe until ALL contaminated infrastructure has been replaced, and that includes plumbing inside the homes and the mains in the streets,” Mays said, adding that the Genesee County Medical Society, which includes doctors who live in Flint and see Flint patients, have declared that the water filters reduce but do not remove all lead and other contaminants such as bacteria, and therefore do not protect the most vulnerable in the community.

According to Mays, Flint residents have no reason to trust these officials because they have not been able to get the truth from them. In addition, Flint residents turned on the news to learn the state has taken away another recovery effort they have relied upon, without any conversation with Flint residents and no time to prepare. As a result, “the traumatized residents of Flint get heartlessly tossed into chaos and stress all over again.” The water disaster in Flint has had a profound impact on Mays, whose family suffers from continual health problems, and whose children’s immune systems were compromised so badly they are consistently sick. “They suffer muscle, bone and joint pain because according to my sons’ osteopath, as teenagers grow, their growth plates have to remain open and spongy. However, lead and other contaminants get stored in the growth plates and can cause them to harden prematurely. So my sons have had painful physical therapy just to get taller,” she said.

“Since 2015, they also see a rheumatologist and endocrinologist and I have to see a neurologist, gastrointestinal specialist, infectious diseases doctor due to the bacteria coming through our showers and all of us are having teeth problems. That is just the tip of the iceberg because the toxic, corrosive water that we drank to be healthy did not just tear up the plumbing, fixtures and appliances in our homes. Other families have lost far more,” she added, noting an additional 177 people who died from bacterial pneumonia, a cause which is now suspected to be undiagnosed Legionnaires’ disease.

“I would not say the crisis is over. It depends on how he [Gov. Snyder] is defining crisis,” Kristin Totten, education attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, told Atlanta Black Star. Totten said that the state administration has declared an end to the crisis based on the facts they have, which show lead levels of 4 parts per billion, as opposed to 15. Totten, who has been focused on the schools, is concerned that little information has been flowing to the teachers, parents and students, who are in panic mode since they will no longer receive state-provided bottled water. Years before the lead poisoning, officials had turned a blind eye to the needs of Flint’s children for too long, Totten argued. Since the onset of the Flint crisis, third-grade literacy has plummeted nearly 75 percent, from 41.8 percent five years ago to 10.7 percent last year.

This past week, the ACLU of Michigan reached a settlement with the Michigan Department of Education, Genesee Intermediate School District and Flint Community Schools on behalf of Flint schoolchildren to establish a universal screening and in-depth assessment program to all children affected by the water crisis. The state of Michigan will provide $4 million to start the program, which will test as many as 30,000 for developmental delays. The settlement stems from a lawsuit challenging Flint’s special education program and its failure to identify and evaluate students with disabilities, amid a water crisis that places thousands of children at risk of developing or exacerbating a disability.

“Within the settlement we’re going to have ongoing monitoring. This settlement is a first step in closing the awareness gap in what children are struggling with. The next step is how to help them and make this district more responsive to their needs,” Totten said.

The decision by Snyder to halt the distribution of bottled water comes as Nestle extracts water 100 miles from Flint nearly for free. The company, which pays only $200 per year to pump 150 gallons of groundwater per minute into bottles, has been granted a permit to extract nearly three times that amount from western Michigan — 400 gallons per minute, 576,000 gallons of water each day — despite 80,945 public comments against the decision and only 75 in favor.

Melissa Mays believes there could be a connection between the end to free water bottles for Flint residents and the state’s decision to grant Nestle the water pumping permit. ”First of all, Snyder’s former Chief of Staff, Dennis Muchmore, is married to the spokesperson for Nestle and Enbridge in Michigan. This is a huge conflict of interest to start but then for the MDEQ who failed Flint to approve a permit that 81,000 Michigan residents (including a lot of people from Flint) spoke out against is a slap in the face,” Mays said of the decision to enable Nestle to double their extraction at no extra cost.

Meanwhile, as Nestle pays $200 per year to extract water from Michigan and bottle water for profit, Flint no longer has bottled water. And Melissa Mays’ water bill this month was $352, $360 last month. Mays, who says Flint residents pay eight times the national average for water, does not want this issue swept under the rug, as the state takes away the only water source for vulnerable people. “Just look at what is happening to Puerto Rico. We feel if Flint had been fixed properly and not allowed to drag through this disaster for 4 years, Puerto Rico would not be allowed to suffer for as long as they have as well,” Mays said. “If Flint does not get justice and made whole like we deserve, our story will be the manual for governments, agencies and corporations on how to ride out a disaster until people give up, die or move away.”

“Our governor says he is going to run our government like a business,” Kristin Totten noted. “This governor has clearly shown he puts his business model ahead of people’s lives.”

Mayor Weaver is lobbying Snyder to extend the distribution of free water bottles.

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