By Rae Avery
Flint, Michigan residents have been grappling for over a year with a dangerously contaminated water supply. When officials made the switch from Lake Huron water to water from the local Flint River, residents noticed a drastic difference in water quality, as well as their children's health. After over a year of trying to get answers out of a misleading local government, citizens are wondering how long their officials knew of the danger, the degree to which emergency management failed them, how to cope with new health issues, and how they can get clean water both now and in the future.
Facing dire economic straits, the city of Flint, Michigan found themselves under “emergency management” with all real power vested in their “emergency planner” reporting to the auspices of the state government. This means that the democratically elected officials basically have no decision-making power, and the emergency manager is the only representative with any actual authority. On June 26, 2013, Flint's emergency planner approved a plan to use the Flint River as the city's primary drinking water source in order to save money, rather than re-negotiate with the Detroit water system, which uses the Great Lakes as its source, and which Flint had been successfully using for over 50 years. A year later, water from the river was pumped into homes all across Flint.
The water in the Flint River, which had a reputation for being notoriously filthy, was also incredibly high in salt, iron, and other contaminants, making it 19 times more corrosive than the previous source, Lake Huron. According to federal law, the water should have been treated with an anti-corrosive agent, which would have cleared up 90% of Flint's water problems, and would've cost about $100 a day. The law was not followed however, and the water went untreated. When the iron-rich water began to flow through the city's lead water mains, the pipes corroded and lead began to leach directly into the public water supply.
In what should have been an immediate call for action, General Motors rejected the switch to Flint water in April for their manufacturing plant, fearing the water “too corrosive.” Said an assistant chief engineer at the Flint GM plant: “Because of all the metal [...] you don’t want the higher chloride water [to result in] corrosion. We noticed it some time ago [and] the discussions have been going on for some time.” Too corrosive for cleaning car parts, but not human consumption?
Citizens of Flint noticed the change immediately in the color, odor, and taste of their tap water, saying it had a murky quality, a light yellowish-brown color, and smelled of sewage. Concerned parents began to report emerging health problems in their children — everything from diarrhea to skin rashes, yet officials kept insisting the water met state standards and was safe to use.
In August 2015, Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech, did some digging in public records and discovered a 2015 memo that outlined the elevated levels of lead in the Flint children's blood. This discovery prompted Edwards to conduct his own study of Flint's water and found that the lead levels were a staggering 900 times higher than the EPA deems safe to consume. Officials dismissed Edwards' findings and touted them as less accurate than their own data, which claimed the water was fine.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Pediatrics Program Director at Hurley Medical Center, found that lead levels in Flint toddlers had doubled, and in certain cases even tripled, after the switch to Flint River water. However, officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality continued to deny there was any danger, and falsely stated that there was no spike in blood lead levels among Flint's children.
Lead is a neurotoxin, and causes learning disabilities, lower IQ, developmental issues, and irreversible brain damage in children exposed to it. Declaring a state of emergency and citing the need for Governor Snyder’s support in her declaration, Mayor Karen Weaver reminded the media that treating the thousands of children in Flint for their mental and physical health problems will require federal resources, which can only be made available if a state of emergency were to be declared in the city.
In October, Flint made the switch back to water from Lake Huron, but they aren't out of the woods just yet. Lead levels in the tap water are lower than before, but still too high to safely consume, and residents are urged not to drink or bathe in it. The Flint water crisis has many asking who is to blame, and several lawsuits are pending against Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, among others.
President Obama declared Flint to be under an official state of emergency on December 14, 2015, which ensures the people of Flint $5 million in aid, but it's not nearly as much as Gov. Rick Snyder thinks they'll need. With his estimation of Flint needing about $95 million over a year, as he has appealed to the President's office to reconsider giving them, it'll likely be a long road to recovery.