By Catherine Colgan, Staff Writer
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched water suppliers in an effort to save money. Originally, the city concluded that moving from their current water provider, Detroit Water and Sewage Department, to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) would save the city $200 million over the next 25 years. While a pipeline was being built connecting to the KWA, the city relied on the Flint River for water.
Problems arose when the quality of the water elicited complaints from Flint residents who were encountering water “hardness.”. Water hardness is characterized by large amounts of metals and calcium, making water-centric tasks such as laundry require more effort or product, like soap or detergent. Although the water from Flint River was found to be 70 percent ‘harder’ than lake water, city officials did not think residents would notice. Still, residents became wary of the smell and color of the water, with many complaining about the murky appearance.
In an attempt to assuage uneasy residents about the water quality, the city gave a press release April 25, 2014, stating that studies on the water had proven that it was safe to drink, while in reality no tests had been conducted. According to Michigan Live, the public was assured that the water met all standards set by the state despite its excessive hardness. The grievances did not lead to further action.
August and September of 2014 brought discoveries fecal coliform bacteria and worry of E. coli contamination in Flint water, both of which can cause illness if ingested by humans. Residents were instructed to boil all water before drinking or bathing, while the city increased the amount of chlorine added to the water to flush out the harmful pathogens. It wasn’t until January 2015 that Flint was found to be in official violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which implements standards for public drinking water set according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Large quantities of trihalomethanes, or disinfection byproducts resulting from reactions between chlorine and organic matter, were found. In addition, evidence of lead in the water became increasingly prevalent. Water is considered dangerous when it is found to be at 5,000 ppb — in the following months, the lead levels in Flint water were found at 13,200 ppb by Virginia Tech researchers. The government response to this was noncommittal in terms of changing water supply and so, the city began buying bottled water for its residents. Additionally, the state cautioned the elderly population and any children to consult with a doctor before consummation, despite continuing to insist the water was safe for the general population.
It was around this time that the Detroit Water and Sewage Department offered to reconnect the city with Lake Huron water, without the $4 million fee attached to such a project. The city declined due to the possibility that this move could cause water rates to go up $12 million a year. The decision was made even as young children were reported having developed rashes from bathing or showering.
Just under a year after the switch, children began to suffer from lead poisoning due to consumption of the contaminated water. Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) notified the EPA that corrosion control was not active at the Flint Water Treatment Plant. Still this crisis was dismissed; a spokesperson from MDEQ was quoted in April characterizing the lead results to be “outliers.” He encouraged citizens to “relax”, though he admitted that he hadn’t seen the official report. When the city released samples from its initial report on lead levels, only two samples were released, placing levels within federally acceptable levels.
The consequences became almost impossible to ignore. After testing hundreds of homes, Virginia Tech concluded that 40 percent of homes using Flint water had serious levels of lead as well. Finally, in October, the city switched back to the Detroit water supplier. Afterwards, the city responded to the chaos surrounding the water supply by citing mere confusion about federal protocol which overlooked the lack of corrosion control in the city.
In an email to a Detroit reporter, MDEQ Director Dan Wyant explained there was a misunderstanding in which “the staff believed they were handling the situation in accordance with proper protocol” but in fact were only acting upon protocol for communities under 50,000 people (At the time, Flint’s population was double that amount according to the US Census). He also added that the lime added to the water supply was insufficient to control corrosion.
In December 2015, just after Karen Weaver was elected mayor of Flint, a state of emergency was declared for the city. In the wake of their disastrous actions, director Dan Wyant and spokesperson Brad Wurfel resigned from the MDEQ. January brought another declaration of a state of emergency, this time from President Obama. This authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide assistance to affected peoples as well as administer federal funding to help cover the cost of reversing the issue.
The aftermath of the disaster brought legal action as the city attempted to recover. In total, nine people were criminally charged for misconduct, conspiracy, and deliberate neglect of duty. This includes Liane Shekter-Smith, Adam Rosenthal, and Patrick Cook, all of whom worked within the MDEQ and are suspected of misleading officials about Flint’s water treatment plan. Nancy Peeler, Robert Scott, and Corinne Miller of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services are also accused to withholding a report concerning high lead levels in the blood of Flint children.
As of January 2017, Flint still struggles to provide adequate water for its citizens. Although the water is now within federal limits of lead and copper content, the city has a long way to go before residents can feel secure, according to The New York Times. Cautions remain about turning on faucets, and Mayor Weaver urges citizens to use water filters or drink bottled water. In the meantime, the city is working to replace the estimated 20,000 pipes contaminated with lead. These efforts may take years to reach full completion.
Beyond the physical detriments of the ordeal, Flint’s citizens are also weary on an emotional level as attempts are made to instill faith in the community. The repercussions of the last few years, however, are beyond even the dangerous physical illnesses from the hazardous water.
The Huffington Post featured a piece showing real residents who have all been impacted by the crisis: regular blood donors find they are no longer eligible to give, children are trained not to touch the water from their home, and other similar effects characterize Flint as a community that is a long way from recovery. Flint also suffers from a weakened relationship between the government and its citizens. Renewed investment in water quality will also require an equal effort in those who call the city home, thus an increased commitment in the future of Flint, Michigan and its residents.