So what caused the water crisis in Flint?

The water crisis in Flint originally began in April of 2014, when the city stopped buying pretreated Lake Huron water from Detroit and began drawing from Flint River water, which turned out to be more corrosive. In violation of federal law, and to the detriment of Flint residents, the state Department of Environmental Quality and city of Flint did not treat the Flint River water with a necessary anti-corrosive agent.

Residents began complaining almost immediately about discolored and bad-smelling water, which they blamed for health problems, but the state refused to acknowledge their concerns for over a year, and the EPA ignored early warnings.

As a result of the water not being properly treated, lead from aging service lines to homes began leaching into the Flint water supply after the city tapped into the Flint River. The river water was found to be 19 times more corrosive than water from Detroit, which was from Lake Huron, according to a study by Virginia Tech.

Health effects of lead exposure in children include impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and delayed puberty. In pregnant women, lead is associated with reduced fetal growth. In general, lead consumption can affect the heart, kidneys and nerves. Medication exists that may reduce the amount of lead in the blood, but treatments for the adverse health effects of lead have yet to be developed.

In October, 2014, the General Motors plant in Flint stopped using the city’s water due to the fact that the water was causing car parts to corrode when they were being washed on the assembly line. The Governor managed to secure GM the ability to hook back up to Lake Huron water at the cost of $440,000. This means that while the rest of the Flint population drank polluted water, there was one — and only one — address in Flint that got clean water: the GM factory.

 In March, 2015, Flint City Council members voted 7-1 to stop using river water and to reconnect with Detroit. However, the state-appointed emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, overruled the vote. He referred to the decision as “incomprehensible” because costs would skyrocket and that “water from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint.” By that time, of course, this statement had clearly been proven as untrue.

Finally, in the fall of 2015, the state of Michigan told residents to stop drinking the water and the city of Flint switched back to Detroit water in October. However, residents of Flint were warned that it would take weeks for the system to be properly flushed out and there could be lingering issues.

Gov. Rick Snyder (R) declared a state of emergency in Flint and Genesee County on Jan. 5, 2016.  Present Obama declines to declare a disaster in Flint. Instead, he authorizes $5 million in aid, declaring a state of emergency in the city. The state of emergency allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to step in.

On April 20, 2016, criminal charges are filed against three government employees: Mike Glasgow, Stephen Busch and Mike Prysby. Busch, a district water supervisor for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and Prysby, a district water engineer, each face six charges. Glasgow, a former laboratory and water quality supervisor who now serves as the city’s utilities administrator, is charged with tampering with evidence, a felony, and willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor. All are on administrative leave.

Five days later, on April 25, 2016, 514 residents and former residents of Flint file a class action lawsuit against the EPA. The plaintiffs allege negligence and demand more than $220 million in damages for the EPA’s role in the water crisis.

On December 20, 2016, four more officials — two of Flint’s former emergency managers, who reported directly to the governor, and two water plant officials — are charged with felonies of false pretenses and conspiracy. They are accused of misleading the Michigan Department of Treasury into getting millions in bonds, and then misused the money to finance the construction of a new pipeline and force Flint’s drinking water source to be switched to the Flint River.

The most recent charges bring the number of former state and local officials who face criminal counts in the Flint water investigation to 13.

What is the water situation now?

The city has finally stopped using the Flint River water and reconnected to the Detroit Water and Sewage department. They addressed the root of the problem by adding corrosion inhibitors, and approximately 600 lead pipes have been replaced out of an estimated 29,000. However, this year, Flint still plans to switch to the Karegnondi Water Authority, which is problematic given the city’s history in handling the treatment of its water.

On a positive note, Congress cleared legislation to provide $170 million to deal with the Flint crisis and help other communities with lead-tainted water.

Lead levels seem to be dropping in the system, but a recent test by scholars at Virginia Tech revealed that five percent of homes in the city still have more lead in their tap water than federal standards allow. That’s thousands of residents who cannot use the tap water in their homes.

Recently, at a January 11, 2017 town hall meeting, government officials stated that residents should, more than 30 months into Flint’s water crisis, continue to use filters at home. They also stated that:

  • That it will take roughly three years for Flint to replace lead water service lines throughout the city.
  • That the money to make that happen has not been secured.
  • The city’s treatment plants needs well over $100 million in upgrades and won’t likely be ready to handle water from the new Karegnondi Water Authority until late-2019- early 2020.

In the meantime, discouragingly, lead had been found in the water and in children’s blood at elevated levels, and the county experienced an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory illness that caused 12 deaths.

Residents were eventually given filters for their taps and still have access to free bottled water, though the state is fighting a court order to deliver water to all households that need it.

By Victoria Balderworth