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Flint’s Water Disaster: A Lead-Pipe Cinch




Early 20th century Flint postcard

For southwest Flint resident Qiana Dawson, it started when she was combing her 2-year-old daughter Rylan’s hair. Dawson was gently spraying water on the child’s head to ease the task, when Rylan started crying, as if she were in pain. She took her to a dermatologist.

And that was when her family discovered the problem with Flint’s water. “I don’t think you anticipate things like this,” Dawson said nearly two years later. “You take water for granted.” Even in hardscrabble Flint, drifting in and out of receivership since the last century, with a population that’s shrunk nearly 21 percent in 15 years and has one of the nation’s top crime rates — clean, healthy tap water seemed like a citizen’s basic right. Now Flint’s water is only safe for washing floors and flushing toilets. Dawson and her family of four have had to use bottled water for everything else—brushing teeth, cooking, washing vegetables, even bathing. “It costs about $7 just to bathe a child with bottled water,” she told Capital & Main

She still pays over $120 month for her useless public water. Dawson and others interviewed for this article said that some Flint parents have been told that if their water is turned off, their children may be put into foster care.

It started as a tale of two bankrupt cities, one large and one small. Detroit sits near a Great Lake, with an abundant supply of fresh drinking water. Little Flint is 65 miles inland. The little city bought water from the big city, while the big city kept raising prices to fund its own collapsing services.

So the Flint City Council voted in 2013 to share a new pipeline to Lake Huron. But this would take at least two years. Meanwhile, Flint’s emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder to run the city, decided to tap the Flint River to save all Flint’s water costs. (Earley has claimed the decision wasn’t his. Howard Croft, a former top Flint official, says the real decision was Snyder’s.) The governor’s managers had previously fired police and cut city wages relentlessly, but for this decision the blowback turned global. In a December act of political contrition, the beleaguered governor, after denying the Flint problem for 18 months, confessed to an error, promised to fix things and released pertinent emails. He formed an investigative panel which his enemies instantly distrusted. But certainly there was plenty of blame to go around.

Starting with Flint. Within days after its river entered the system in early 2014, it seemed as if no one in the Flint Department of Public Works had ever heard of water treatment. First there came high-level E. coli bacteria. The city responded by urging consumers to boil water while the city over-chlorinated it, creating dangerous chemical compounds. Consumers complained their water now smelled like garbage.


Meanwhile, another peril crept in. The Flint River was no longer the toxic waterway it was when it drained Flint’s vanished General Motors plants. But it still was tainted by the salt applied to roads every Michigan winter. Fiercely corrosive to metals like iron and chrome found in water mains and pipes, it caused water to “look more like coffee, or tea,” according to Dawson, which she and her neighbors brought in jugs to council meetings. They were all told that the water was safe and not to worry. Far more worrisome was the invisible lead dissolved in the same water.

“Some of the pipe was over 100 years old,” said Siddhartha “Sid” Roy, one of the team of over 20 experts from Virginia Polytechnic who came to Flint to investigate. About half the homes had lead piping connecting the water mains, which had their own lead residues. A simple, common corrosion cure is adding phosphate chemicals. Asked by the Environmental Protection Agency, a Flint official reportedly said Flint did have a phosphate treatment program. Both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times have reported Flint had no such program, while other reports suggested the treatment was omitted to save $60 a month.

“I struggle to understand how this happened,” says Roy. According to Virginia Tech’s sampling of over 270 homes, the omission caused average lead levels in Flint’s faucet water of 11 parts per billion—double the recommended maximum. One sample tested at 13,000 ppb—more than double the federal “toxic waste” level. It is assumed that most of the city’s 8,556 children 5 years old or under were exposed to this tainted water. No one knows how many might suffer from their exposure. There is also an assumption that less affluent families’ older homes are more likely to be affected. Lead poisoning can be irreversible.

Father Dan Scheid, of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Flint, said:

“It falls on the poor.” Flint has 40 percent unemployment and is 60 percent black. Scheid added: “There is a lot of finger pointing…I think it can do good if it casts light on those who are liable.”

Already, EPA regional administrator (and Obama appointee) Susan Hedman, who allegedly sat on an EPA warning about lead in Flint’s water for five months, has resigned on a week’s notice. Heads have rolled in Michigan’s bureaucracy—particularly in the state Environmental Quality Agency, which had staunchly denied any dangers, while reportedly installing filters on its own office water coolers. “People were complaining about the water quality from the first day,” said Scheid. “It took 18 months for official acknowledgement and reaction. Would it have taken nearly that long in a wealthy community?’’

“Then the GM engine plant staff complained that the river water was corroding freshly made components. GM started getting its water [elsewhere],’’ Scheid noted. Officialdom ignored the possibility that water bad enough to corrode steel castings might also harm people. “I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,’’ Snyder said, announcing the resignation of his EQA head. But many feel Snyder himself stands atop the pyramid of blame.

Early this year the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been a major partner in the Flint water supply investigation, announced the Justice Department was ”working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency on the investigation into the contamination of the city of Flint’s water supply.” The ACLU has since announced its own legal action. Meanwhile,  State Attorney General Bill Schuette said the state may refuse to defend Michigan Environmental Quality employees from a pending Flint class action suit.

Melissa Mays, a Flint water activist with a group called Water We’re Fighting For, wants justice. But she also wonders where the money will come from, not just to upgrade the water infrastructure (the estimates range from $60 million to over $1 billion), but to treat and care for those who may have suffered possibly irreversible harm from lead exposure. “We need to do blood tests on all of Flint’s children,” she said, and secure needful funding of treatments like chelation. Good diet is important too, she added, because fresh produce, especially greens, helps reduce lead’s effects. She noted that Flint is a food desert for fresh, healthy produce. There are very few full-service grocery store for over 99,000 Flintians.

Flint remains in the nation’s eye. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, along with Freemasons and a local Militia (sans guns) are delivering water to those in need (a case weighs nearly 26 pounds—quite a tote if you have to take a bus). Water or funding for water is also being donated by churches as far away as Memphis, Tennessee and Inglewood, California. Hundreds of union plumbers in Michigan have come to install faucet filters and (where necessary) new faucets for free. Working people everywhere relate to Flint’s plight, because we all now really live in a culture prone to demolishing the basic benefits of society for the short-term gain of a few.

Just ask anyone waiting in line for bottled water in Flint.

Marc Haefele is a commentator on KPCC’s Off Ramp program and has written for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

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