Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
Michigan is surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes, giving the state access to 95 percent of all freshwater in the country and 20 percent of the entire world's supply. It is curious, then, that the residents in Flint would find themselves unable to drink the water that comes out of their taps due to contamination of lead.
While the Flint water crisis has just recently begun to receive national attention, the root of the problem stems from 2011. In order to address the financial distress of the city, Flint was placed under an emergency manager by the governor, Rick Snyder, to rally the economy that had been suffering for a number of years for a few different reasons. This emergency manager found one area that he believed could save Flint millions of dollars: the water source.
Since the 1960s, Flint's city water had been sourced from Lake Huron, by way of Detroit's water system, about 70 miles away. It was decided not to renew Flint's contract with Detroit, deciding instead to build their own pipes to the lake. To source water during the pipes' construction, the city would get water from Flint River.
While Flint River once suffered due to extensive pollution by auto factories years ago, dedicated conservation efforts have renewed the river, restoring it as a thriving ecosystem and location for recreational sports such as canoeing and kayaking. Environmental testing supported using the river as an acceptable water source and the city was converted in April 2014. Those living outside the city limits in Flint Township remained on the Detroit water supply.
Flint's plumbing infrastructure, like many older systems, is rife with lead solder connections in the copper pipes. When the water from Flint River, which was much more caustic than what was coming from Detroit, was flushed through the system, the inside of the pipes began to corrode, letting lead and other toxins leach into the water. While lead cannot be detected in the water by sight or smell, other minerals from the pipes made the water smell foul and run out of the faucet cloudy and brown nearly immediately after the conversion.
"My first inclination that there was anything wrong with the water was back when it first switched over from the Detroit water to the Flint River water," lifelong Flint resident Wayne Wodtke told A Plus. "Other friends and family noticed something right away, but at first I said, 'The water seems just fine to me. If I had not seen it on the news, I wouldn't have even known that there was a change.' Then about two days later, I got up in the morning and turned on my shower and I could smell the difference. It had still never really occurred to me though that the water would be actually dangerous to use or ingest."
It wasn't long until health problems started rolling in.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a resident pediatrician at Flint's Hurley Medical Center, began to notice a dramatic uptick in the number of patients coming in with symptoms associated with lead poisoning, such as rashes and loss of hair. For her young patients, exposure to lead during these formative years can have lifelong cognitive implications, including a reduction in IQ and learning disabilities. She began testing children for lead and reached out to public officials, including the governor, with her undeniable proof that the water was tainted with lead and children were suffering. Her concerns were not taken seriously, with replies that the water was fine.
It would later be revealed that when the switch of water sources was made, state officials were supposed to add in anti-corrosive agents into the water to preserve the pipes, which would have run about $60-$100 per day. The chemicals were not added as they should have been, which led to a dark realization: this entire situation could have been prevented and was being willfully ignored.
"[The moment when] I really realized the [severity] of the situation was when I heard that General Motors was bringing in their own water or not using the Flint city water anymore (in October 2014) because they found it too corrosive to use on their car parts," Wodtke explained. "It was like … Well, wait a minute!?! What?!?!"
For a year and a half, Flint's water kept getting cleared by state officials, with claims that nothing was wrong with it, despite public outcry that something wasn't right. In September 2015, a group from Virginia Tech conducted the Flint Water Study, confirming hazardous levels of lead coming in from the pipes. A few weeks later, Hanna-Attisha took matters into her own hands and went public with her information that the water was causing lead poisoning. Days later, the city recommended that residents stop drinking the water. Flint then reconnected to Detroit's water supply, but because the damage to the pipes had already been done, the situation did not improve.
"The state knew of this issue for a lengthy period of time," Flint township resident David Stanley told A Plus in an interview. "The data was clear from the Virginia Tech water studies and the local medical studies produced by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. The emails show that this travesty goes all the way to the top."
In addition to corroding the city's pipes, the water has also damaged the plumbing of every business and private residence connected to the untreated water. This is a huge hit to property values, which had already been suffering long before the current crisis. About 40 percent of the city's residents live below the poverty line.
Adding further insult to injury, Flint residents are still receiving water bills; getting charged for toxic water that is not safe to consume, at rates higher than the rest of the state. Those who are choosing not to pay are receiving shutoff notices, damaging their credit and putting them in an even worse situation.
"Why was this crisis ignored until it could be no longer be ignored?" Stanley asked, rhetorically. "Racism and politics. Flint is 60 percent African-American. It is obvious from the rhetoric spewed by white legislators early in this crisis that the Black lives in Flint were not deemed important. The other piece of this puzzle is that Flint, with its long history of labor unionism, is traditionally a Democratic community. With little payback to the [Republican] governor and his cronies, why should they look after Flint?"
Until Flint's infrastructure is renovated and all of the corroded pipes are replaced, the water crisis will not end. Filters and water donations are essential to get through this, but the people need and deserve to have fresh and untainted water available through their city plumbing once again. It is estimated that the total cost to replace the pipes will exceed $1.5 billion — hardly the cost-cutting measure that state officials believed it would be.
The people of Flint were lied to about the water's safety by government officials. The very people who were tasked with bringing their city's finances into check instead caused unparalleled amounts of harm to the most vulnerable citizens, destroyed the city's infrastructure, and posed a monumental financial burden onto taxpayers across Michigan to fix something that never should have been broken in the first place.
For those who have been harmed by the lead-tainted water, the damage from this tragedy can never be repaired. The water infrastructure will take years to repair. Currently, each household is being provided with a case of water per day, plus filters.
"My biggest concerns for me at this point are how long is this going to be a danger to the citizens of Flint and what are the long range effects of all of this?" Wodtke continued. "I wonder what it is going to take at this point for me to ever be able to just go to the kitchen, turn on the tap, [and] safely be able to get myself a glass of water? It's inconvenient but manageable for me as a single individual, but I can't imagine if I had an entire family."
This water crisis was not the fault of the people of Flint and they should not have to recover from it alone. Celebrities such as Cher, Big Sean, and Mark Ruffalo have sent donations. Barack Obama pledged $80 million to help rebuild the infrastructure and end the problem permanently. However, it is going to take a number of small donations from many average citizens to truly meet the needs of the city until then.
Donations made to United Way of Genesee County's Flint Water Fund is giving 100 percent of all money that comes in toward filtration systems and water filters.
Stanley told A Plus that donations for water and filters are not the only way for the average person to take action in light of this devastating event. He believes there are three key ways for people to respond.
"One, keep the pressure on. Let your national legislators know that citizens in America deserve clean, safe water. Email President Obama and thank him for signing the Federal Emergency Act. Two, take a lesson from this and never let this happen anywhere else. Three, vote for people who pay attention."
We see you, Flint. We've got your back.