“The biggest issue is that my government, who is supposed to protect me, has lied to me”
When speaking with people from Flint, Michigan, words like orthophosphate or reverse osmosis or trihalomethanes spill into conversation easily, as if they were discussing their grocery lists or the Super Bowl.
After over 1,000 days of contaminated tap water—with at least another 1,000 predicted—it is easy to see how a citizen becomes a scientist.
“How do you take a bath or a shower using bottled water? How do you tell your children that they can’t drink the water in school?” asks Val Washington. The Flint resident and lawyer has filed a class action suit against the city for illegally raising water and sewage rates and then using that money to fund other operations, beginning in 2011.
During the crisis, Flint’s water and sewage rates were some of the highest in the United States, nearly double the national average—and yet residents were being poisoned.
“They were using that money to pay judgments, they were doing all kinds of things, they were borrowing money,” said Washington. “It is my theory that whenever they needed the money, they just increased the charge.”
Protests in Flint. Image courtesy of Arthur Woodson.
The current public health crisis began when the state-appointed emergency manager made the decision to switch from Detroit’s water to a new source, the Karegnondi Water Authority, in an effort to save $12 million a year. The city had been hemorrhaging money and people ever since General Motors downsized their plants throughout the 1980s and again in 1990. In 2011, the state took over Flint’s finances.
However, the city’s water contract with Detroit expired before the new source would be available, so they resolved to the use the Flint River in the interim, switching over in April 2014.
At the time, the city’s water treatment facilities were unable to add orthophosphate, which prevents pipes from corroding. To make matters worse, the Flint River water was already 19 times more corrosive than their previous source, which did have added orthophosphates. In a city with aging water mains and lead service lines, this newer, harsher water spelled disaster, quickly degrading the infrastructure and exposing citizens to dangerous levels of lead and other toxins.
“This was not ignorance. This was not incompetence. This was a standard practice for the people running the city of Flint,” said Washington. “Why would you allow (the emergency manager) to flip the switch if you knew he hadn’t made the upgrades?”
Months after switching to the new water, the complaints began. Citizens reported rashes and hair loss; their water smelled funny and looked murky and undrinkable.
But, they were told by government officials that everything was fine. Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling went so far as to go on television in July 2015 and drink a glass of tap water, assuring citizens it was potable.
It wasn’t until October 2015, following pressure from citizens and volunteer scientists who collected data on lead water levels, that officials acknowledged the contaminated water, issuing an emergency advisory for citizens not to drink their water.
But by then, the damage was complete. After 18 months of corrosive water, the city’s delivery systems were in shambles. Current Mayor Karen Weaver estimates it will cost the city some $1.5 billion to replace the old infrastructure. Without new service lines and water mains, lead will continue to leach into the system.
“We still don’t have enough money from the state and federal governments to fulfill my pledge to replace all the lead-tainted service lines leading to nearly 20,000 homes over the next three years,” said Mayor Weaver in a statement following Governor Rick Snyder’s State of the State address in January. So far, the city has replaced nearly 800 lead service lines.
Although the state has provided over $247 million in aid to the city, many residents say that enough funds are not being used to fix the damaged infrastructure. “They are putting a lot of money in there trying to correct the damages they’ve done with the kids and the health, but they aren’t fixing the problem,” says Harold Harrington, a business manager of Flint’s plumber’s union, the United Association Local 370.
Although state and federal officials are ostensibly monitoring the water now, Washington’s wife continues to do home tests every few weeks. After being told repeatedly that lead-filled water was drinkable, the public has little trust.
“We’ve been told so many lies,” said Wade Garvins. The lifelong resident of Flint says that he has been affected by the crisis “not just physically, but emotionally and morally.”
Kids volunteering to help distribute water in Flint, January 2016. Image courtesy of Arthur Woodson.
“I am sick of seeing bottled water,” said Garvins. The 52-year-old lives in an affluent part of Flint, and although nearly all of his neighbors have cars, making it easier for them to drive to pick up locations, he says it is a burden to always have to think about it. He always has at least 15 cases in his house, and said, “getting water became part of the grocery list.”
Although residents were told in January 2017 that water is potable as long as they filter it, nearly everyone continues to drink only bottled. The free filters that are distributed don’t fit all faucets, they need to be changed at least once a month, and they won’t work if there are high levels of lead or if the water is heated.
For residents, the financial burden continues. The state is continuing to provide bottled water, faucet filters, and test kits, but citizens they are responsible for the damages to their homes, which could cost upwards of $10,000.
Although the city maintains that lead particulates can be flushed out of domestic plumbing systems, galvanized pipes, which were widely used before the 1960s, are “a lead sponge. It is just as bad,” says Harrington. The 55-year-old has been a plumber for 34 years; he estimates that 50 percent of homes in the city have galvanized pipes.
With other union members, Harrington has volunteered to replace pipes in three houses so far. For a single-story house, he says it costs between $4,000 and $5,000.
The galvanized pipe that needs to be replaced in many residents’ homes. Image courtesy of Harold Harrington.
Many residents also need new appliances (anything that water ran through). Hot water heaters costs around $1,500, after installation. A dishwasher retails for $349, while a washing machine costs $400.
So, after 18 months of being charged exuberantly high rates for contaminated water, citizens are on the hook for at least $9,589 in home repairs. For many in Flint—40.1 percent of citizens fall under the poverty line—that number is too high.
Residents have likely spent thousands more. Home filtration systems cost around $300, with $100 cartridges that need to be replaced every few months. Before officials acknowledged the contamination, many residents switched to bottled water, spending $400 a month. Some have joined gyms outside city limits so that they can shower in peace, while others spring for a monthly night at a hotel.
“People are tired, people are angry. They are fighting about the misinformation,” said Washington. “The biggest issue is that my government, who is supposed to protect me, has lied to me … if you don’t have trust in your government what do you have? You have anarchy.”