- The pandemic has exposed America’s clean water crisis
- Communities without access to clean water are in a “constant state of emergency”
- Local water advocacy groups are stepping in to bring water to their communities
- Six Years Later, Flint Still Doesn’t Have Clean Water: One of the Worst Environmental Injustices in the 21st Century
- A Brief History of Racial Injustice in Michigan
- The Flint Water Crisis
- Looking Forward
- Featured Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr
- Five years on, the Flint water crisis is nowhere near over
- Quantity, not quality
- Chloride, chloride, chloride
- “We have no explanation”
The pandemic has exposed America’s clean water crisis
Day after day, Deanna Miller Berry watches the requests pile up in her inbox.
“Please help me,” a resident of Denmark, South Carolina, pleads. “I’m stuck in my house and don’t want to drink the water.”
“Just water,” another resident writes in.
A third request for water comes in from a family of two who live in an apartment in the center of town on a block flanked by Baptist churches and not too far from the Piggly Wiggly.
Miller Berry logs the responses to the dozen questions in an Excel sheet for the Denmark Citizens for Clean Water: Yes, someone in the home is directly impacted by Covid-19. Yes, someone has a disability. Yes, someone is elderly.
No, neither one has access to their own transport.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Miller Berry’s document keeps growing longer.
As the founder of Denmark Citizens for Clean Water, she helps supply the community with clean water instead of the brown, smelly liquid that has been sloshing the taps in a number of homes for more than a decade.
She delivers tanks and pays the monthly water costs — sometimes hundreds of dollars — for residents in the majority-black community.
The town’s battle with drinking water — laced with HaloSan, a pesticide meant to kill bacteria — long precedes the pandemic, though. Residents told a local outlet 10 years ago, “The smell is terrible.” More recently, former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer mentioned the residents’ concerns over their water system on the campaign trail.
Virginia Tech civil engineering professor Marc Edwards, who exposed the unsafe lead levels in the water in Flint, Michigan, and helped bring national attention to the issue, has also gone down to Denmark to test the town’s well at the request of the community. In 2017, he collected dozens of samples from homes, Miller Berry says, but when Edwards asked the town’s mayor if he could test a well for possible bacterial contamination after spotting a leaky sewage pipe, the mayor refused.
As for Flint, Mayor Sheldon Neely is still busy dealing with the community’s access to clean drinking water six years after large amounts of lead were detected. And now there is the pandemic.
When Vox spoke with Neely a few weeks ago, he had declared a state of emergency before the president of the United States had, and had ordered water that was shut off by the previous administration reconnected.
Meanwhile, miles away in Detroit, lawyers and activists are also fighting to turn water back on for the city’s most vulnerable populations, after officials promised it would do so amid coronavirus concerns — yet hundreds still remain without access.
Having chemical- and lead-free water — or water at all — in the pandemic is vital: Hand-washing with soap is one of the most effective ways to fight off the virus. But millions of Americans across the country lack clean water — from small, rural towns in Kentucky to New Jersey’s densely populated city of Newark.
And while clean water access isn’t only an issue for majority-black communities Flint, Denmark, or Detroit, one study did find race to be the strongest correlative to lack of clean water. It is a crisis that is further exacerbated by the coronavirus, compounding years-long injustices in water-poor communities.
“It’s just a Catch-22,” Edwards tells Vox. “If [these communities] don’t engage in rigorous hygiene, they’re endangering themselves to coronavirus, and if they do, they’re fearful of the water.”
Communities without access to clean water are in a “constant state of emergency”
Contaminated water isn’t confined to a few communities or states, experts say. In any given year from 1982 to 2015, nearly 45 million Americans were accessing water that violated health standards, according to a 2018 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While that may be true, the lack of water access impacts low-income communities Denmark, Flint, and Martin County, Kentucky, more aggressively.
“That is a reality for our poorest Americans,” Edwards said, which “translates into a lot of problems. … Cities that have a lot of water shutoffs. Others are living in fear of bathing and showering because of distrust in their water. And so even the basic functional water and quantity for hygiene isn’t being delivered.”
Darlene McClendon at her home in Flint, Michigan, in 2016. Many residents have been buying bottled water because the city’s water supply has been contaminated with lead. Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
In Martin County, Kentucky, BarbiAnn Maynard, who has seen brown, milky water in her shower and kitchen for nearly two decades — when she does have water — waves off the collective panic around coronavirus.
“This is not anything unusual for us,” Maynard, a member of the Martin County Water Warriors, tells Vox. “I used hand sanitizer rather than our water” before coronavirus. She has been afraid to wash her hands for a long time, and the pandemic has changed almost nothing, she says. When she takes a shower, she uses antibacterial hand-wash.
The Martin County Water District operates in a “constant state of emergency,” the state’s Public Service Commission noted. A 2019 report from the Appalachian Citizens Law Center noted nearly half of the county’s residents couldn’t afford to buy water regularly. (The water department did not return Vox’s request for comment.)
Now in the pandemic, many of the grocery stores in the county are water, Maynard says.
Donors paying into a fund for residents to buy water are still making contributions, but the only grocery store allowing residents to buy water at market value limits it to two gallons per person per visit.
It takes an average of four gallons to get through the day, Maynard says. Before the pandemic, residents could make a 45-minute drive to a spring in West Virginia, but now they’re not allowed to cross state lines.
To work around the grocery stores’ rules, Maynard went directly to the bottle distribution center in Elkhorn City, Kentucky, more than an hour drive from her home, to buy cases in bulk.
But even before the coronavirus, Martin County needed more bottled and distilled water than other places in the US. “It’s just as bad inhaling it in the shower, so you have to get right back out,” Maynard says.
The threat of dirty, lead-infused, or chemical-laced water — and, in some cases, no water at all — is not only a rural concern. Last year, more than 23,000 accounts had their water shut off in the city of Detroit, and 37 percent still hadn’t had service restored as of mid-January.
With the virus spreading, the city promised to restore water to residents, but as of March 31 had only done so for 1,050 of the 10,000 people who called with a water service problem (8,000 of those callers did not qualify for the Coronavirus Water Restart Plan, according to a city report).
Kristi Pullen Fedinick, the director of science and data at the environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, attributes the overlooked water crises across the country to governmental “policies that have led to specific communities being disenfranchised and marginalized.”
These dozens of communities across the United States, she says, have been facing not only water crises but many other issues because they have been systematically ignored for decades by those in charge.
She ticks off the problems communities tend to face when they lack water: poor air quality, poor access to health care, and higher-than-average death rates.
“The pandemic really exacerbated those issues they have been facing for a very, very, very long time.”
In Newark, New Jersey, for example, the state’s largest city, lead-contaminated water has impacted the health of its residents for years, with city officials denying there was a problem.
In 2018, they abruptly changed course, however, and started handing out water filters to some residents after a new study confirmed that lead was indeed in the water at an alarmingly high rate, the New York Times reported.
In August, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to the mayor recommending the city advise residents “to use bottled water for drinking and cooking, until we can be assured of the reliable efficacy of filtration devices.
” At the same time, the Newark Water Coalition provided hundreds of gallons of water and filters at its distribution sites pre-pandemic, to fill in the void of just how much water residents need.
But with the stay-at-home mandates in a hot spot New Jersey, the coalition’s co-founder Sabre Bee says getting water out to those in need isn’t always possible when keeping social distancing in mind.
“We were doing [distribution] at church, but of course, we can’t gather in groups of five or more,” Bee says. “And so we haven’t been able to move distributions.” Instead, she and other advocates for clean water deliver water to older and ill people, those who cannot get around in the middle of a pandemic.
People are telling Bee they’re boiling water when they can’t get clean water, which she knows works with bacteria. But with lead, she says, that only concentrates the amount in the water.
“I know this is serious,” Bee says about the pandemic, “and I have to help my immune system during this time, but I’m drinking water that’s poisoned. So now I’m just a ball of nerves and feeling helpless and hopeless.”
Local water advocacy groups are stepping in to bring water to their communities
In 2018, the NRDC found that more than 30 million Americans, nearly 10 percent of the country’s population, drank from sources that violated the EPA’s federal regulations.
The issue, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines on its website, is that even though the EPA puts out regulations — setting legal limits on contaminants in drinking water and regularly updating water standards — they are just regulations. There is no national standard that mandates states implement the EPA’s guidelines.
This leaves a gap in local and state governments carrying out these guidelines, because in many cases, they may not have the financial resources to improve their drinking water.
“I’m just a ball of nerves and feeling helpless and hopeless”
As Edwards says, all the blame cannot be placed on small, local governments: “Many of our post-industrial cities and towns in America are losing population, and those who are left behind cannot afford to upgrade their infrastructure and maintain it to meet existing federal laws and standards. And so [those in charge] end up cutting corners because they have no choice.”
This leaves those communities at risk to take it upon themselves to find — and many times buy — their own clean drinking water.
In Denmark, Miller Berry has taken on the burden of helping those in her community. “We’ve gotten zero help from the state of South Carolina. We’ve gotten zero help from our county, and we’ve gotten zero help from our city officials. We are being ignored by all three,” Miller Berry says. (Multiple attempts by Vox to contact the mayor’s office went unanswered.)
She has paid more than 20 residents’ water billsover the past few months,according to her calculations, and word is spreading. These days, she gets more than 60 calls a day.
“I’ve been reaching out to the National Guard today to see if they could provide a water buffalo [tank]. But a [tank] cannot be provided to us until our county emergency management manager declares Denmark an emergency,” Miller Berry says.
This is a stark contrast to local governments that have stepped up in the pandemic.
In Newark, construction workers have replaced more than half of the nearly 19,000 lead-laden pipes since 2019, according to Kareem Adeem, the city’s director of water and sewage.
Filters that should last the better part of a year were passed out before the coronavirus outbreak to the residents who still have lead-contaminated water in their pipes, he said.
In Kentucky, Maynard can’t even finish her sentence when she talks about how people are supporting her community. “Getting donations right now is, oh, my gosh,” she says over the phone with relief. A state representative sent 60 gallons of distilled water for medical needs, while another Democratic state Senate candidate, Scott Sykes, sent 200 cases of water to residents, she said.
Even though it’s a massive public health threat, coronavirus feels a blip to communities struggling with water, Edwards says. “There [are] many dimensions to this problem and [coronavirus] is a minor dimension, but it’s symptomatic of a frustrating situation that you can’t even rely on to get water from your tap.”
“,”author”:”Khushbu Shah”,”date_published”:”2020-04-17T12:30:00.000Z”,”lead_image_url”:”https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/xgDrbj5NHvJ-M0Mn_Yi59B4pSBY=/0x0:3500×1832/fit-in/1200×630/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/19902640/GettyImages_1164298761.jpg”,”dek”:null,”next_page_url”:null,”url”:”https://www.vox.com/identities/2020/4/17/21223565/coronavirus-clean-water-crisis-america”,”domain”:”www.vox.com”,”excerpt”:”Millions live without access to clean water in the US â and the coronavirus has left them in further turmoil.”,”word_count”:2107,”direction”:”ltr”,”total_pages”:1,”rendered_pages”:1}
Six Years Later, Flint Still Doesn’t Have Clean Water: One of the Worst Environmental Injustices in the 21st Century
Climate change is a prominent threat to the lives and livelihoods of Michiganders, and there are certain communities that are especially vulnerable — Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), as well as low-income people and families.
Many individuals within these communities have been victims of injustice for decades, due to policies that explicitly marginalize People of Color when it comes to social services such as education and housing.
In recent decades, communities in urban areas of Michigan have fallen victim to environmental injustice, and have been impacted negatively by the lack of attention state policymakers give to both environmental crises and marginalized communities.
This is most evident with the Flint Water Crisis (2014-present), a public health catastrophe with horrific origins in discriminatory public policies and environmental injustice.
A Brief History of Racial Injustice in Michigan
Michigan has a long history of segregation defining the makeup of its communities. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), a U.S.
agency established during the Great Depression in 1934 by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has historically steered federally-backed mortgages away from neighborhoods with high BIPOC populations in favor of White neighborhoods.
This began the process of redlining, a discriminatory practice which outlined areas with sizable African American populations, and effectively isolated them from investment opportunities and public spending.
Racial segregation was essentially an official part of the federal mortgage insurance program in the early twentieth century, due to fears that properties in integrated neighborhoods would be “too risky” for insurance, and would bring down property values. The program significantly improved home ownership for White, working-class Michiganders, while Black residents did not receive any benefits — the policy has been deemed a huge contributor to the stark racial wealth and generational wealth gap present in the country today.
Segregation continued in Michigan, both formally and informally. In 1941, a wall was built along Eight Mile Road, typically viewed as the cut-off point between Detroit proper and the surrounding suburbs.
This served as a physical representation of the separation between the White and Black communities of the Detroit Metropolitan Area.
Even today, some parts of the six-foot tall wall still stand, serving as a reminder of the history of segregation in one Michigan community.
The legacy of redlining depreciated home values, which in turn contributed to job discrimination and continued racial inequity.
Today, an area’s property taxes provide significant funding for public schools in Michigan, and school districts in poorer neighborhoods frequently struggle with limited resources and financial support.
Discriminatory practices over the past century have created communities with unequal resources within the state of Michigan, which also plays a considerable role in the way the state government approaches issues in various communities.
The Flint Water Crisis
Michigan was launched into the national spotlight in April 2014, when the city of Flint switched its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River. The switch was originally made to cut costs, and aimed to save $5 million previously spent on water infrastructure.
However, the switch from different water supplies meant that corrosion inhibitors were not applied to the water, and as a result there was a negative reaction between the new water supply and the lead pipes in the city’s water system.
The lead from the pipes leached into the water supply, and exposed thousands of people to toxic levels of lead.
Overall, an estimated 140,000 Flint residents were exposed to lead in their water supply. Official reports state that 12 people died from the crisis due to an outbreak of Legionnaires disease, though there are ly dozens more who were impacted. Scientists also estimate that the water caused permanent brain damage in the thousands of children exposed.
The situation in Flint is greater than an error in public administration. The most recent census shows Flint’s demographic makeup as 57% African American, with 41% of the population living below the poverty line. This is in contrast with Michigan’s overall population, which is 14% Black, and 14% living in poverty.
Flint, Michigan has struggled economically for decades, beginning with an economic depression in the late 1980s when several General Motors factories closed and thousands of people were put work.
In the decades since, the city has continued to struggle, and both the unemployment rate and poverty rate are significantly higher than the state’s average.
Many community advocates argue that because of the city’s demographics and struggling economy, the government neglected Flint — an example of enduring environmental racism.
“Given the magnitude of the disaster in Flint, the role that public officials’ decisions played that led to the poisoning of the city’s water, their slow pace at acknowledging and responding to the problem, and the fact that Flint is a city of almost 100,000 people indeed makes this the most egregious example of environmental injustice and racism in my over three decades of studying this issue,” said Dr. Paul Mohai, professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Michigan in an interview with the university. Representative Dan Kildee (MI-5), who’s congressional district encompasses the city of Flint, agreed, viewing race as, “the single greatest determinant of what happened in Flint.”
Even as the Flint Water Crisis made national and international headlines, efforts to remedy the disaster wereas slow within the government. The United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that its response was not taken fast enough.
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights concluded that, “a complex mix of historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias led to decisions, actions, and consequences in Flint [that] would not have been allowed to happen in primarily White communities such as Birmingham, Ann Arbor, or East Grand Rapids.”
Racial systemic inequities are one explanation for the poor response to the Flint Water Crisis. There is also the issue where residents of communities of color are also marginalized from decision-making processes and governing bodies, and therefore are underrepresented. In a 2018 article published by the Michigan Sociological Review, Dr.
Mohai wrote that communities disproportionately burdened by environmental contamination and health risks are, “also places where residents are not given meaningful say in the decisions that affect their communities and quality of life, where their concerns about pollution and the health impacts are minimized, discounted or dismissed, and where residents are treated disrespectfully and shown they have little influence or clout.” Given that the decision to switch the water supply was approved by state-appointed emergency managers rather than democratically elected city officials, it’s clear that the people of Flint had little say in what was happening to their water source.
While environmental justice is a critical issue all across the United States, it is especially prevalent in Flint, Michigan, where low-income residents and communities of color make up a significant proportion of the population being disproportionately affected. It is evident that more work must be done to push for justice in these communities, and break past the racist boundaries that have been instilled in communities for nearly a century.
There are many environmental organizations within the state of Michigan that are pushing progressive policies, including the Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint, which has hosted events to educate community members on environmental justice concerns. This group focuses on issues beyond the Flint Water Crisis, and also explores disparities in health regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in Black communities.
In January 2020, Governor Gretchen Whitmer established the state’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council, led by Regina Strong, Michigan’s first Environmental Justice Public Advocate.
This council includes individuals from a variety of backgrounds in community education, energy justice, and public policy, from a number of communities across the state.
These individuals and organizations demonstrate a strong commitment to both racial and environmental justice, and push for the state to address its policy failures.
Michigan has a horrific history of racial injustice, though state leaders have the opportunity to improve life for millions of residents. The current work under Governor Whitmer’s administration has the opportunity to push Michigan in the right direction in the fight to secure justice for all, and reshape the environmental landscape for years to come.
Featured Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr
Five years on, the Flint water crisis is nowhere near over
Flint, MichiganThe Flint River scribbles 142 miles through mid-Michigan, and a noticeable change occurs as it flows southwest into the city of Flint. Concrete slopes capped with wire fences flank the water.
Occasional graffiti or a weedy bush break the monotony of such barren shores. So do decaying bridge piers protruding from the center of the river the sails of submarines much too large for the modest waterway.
Another stark transformation happens in the few seconds required to paddle beneath the Sunset Drive bridge. Gray stone ceases and a leafy, tree-shrouded corridor unfolds.
Looking back five years, the same magnitude of change happened on April 25, 2014, when smiling city officials raised glasses of water to toast a switch that altered 100,000 lives.
At that time, the city's water servicechanged from nearby Detroit's system to the local Flint River, in an effort to save money.
But Flint failed to properly treat the water and dangerous levels of lead leached from old pipes, setting up a public health crisis that has endangered thousands of children and affected every resident, many of whom had to drink bottled water for long periods of time. Some still do.
The political fallout was intense, with numerous city and state officials resigning. A city-declared state of emergency remains in effect as remediation continues, and skepticism persists when it comes to the drinking water quality.
Many questions also linger about blame and the way the crisis unfolded, as well as about the community's connection to the river. (See portraits of the people living on bottled water.)
Quantity, not quality
“We just covered it in my class this week,” says Noah Hall, a professor of law at Wayne State University in Detroit. He previously served as Michigan’s volunteer special assistant attorney general to investigate the drinking water crisis.
“The discussion of Flint with the students was just sort of Family Feud style. How many people heard the Flint River was to blame for the water crisis?”
Most of the people raised a hand to agree.
Various news reports have disparaged the waterway. Polluted. Toxic. Vile. Those references rely on outdated historical narratives.
“The notion that we have a dirty and dangerous river is one that we’ve been addressing before the drinking water crisis,” says Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition. “I think that’s why it was so easy to point the finger at the river.”
Large-scale production of lumber, chemicals, and automobiles tainted the waterway during the 19th and 20th centuries. General Motors was founded in Flint in 1908, and the company maintained eight plants by the time a 1966 U.S. Department of Interior report evaluated the watershed.
From spark plugs to engines to assembly, the GM locations dumped 10 million gallons of waste into the river every day, according to the Interior report. This included minimally treated oil and dangerous substances cyanide and hexavalent chromium.
Flint tapped into Detroit’s municipal water system the following year to receive water sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. The decision relied on foresight rather than reaction. Planners considered the quantity of the Flint River as a limiting factor, not quality, with a bustling car industry and projected fivefold growth from the 1960 census population of almost 200,000 people.
Then came the federal environmental legislation of the early 1970s.
“The Clean Water Act was the tool that really did so much across our entire country to help address industrial pollution in our waterways,” Fedewa says. “The case was no different here on the Flint River.”
However, even the 1966 report had identified a primary element that contributed to the modern drinking water crisis. (Learn more about drinking water safety in the U.S.)
Chloride, chloride, chloride
The river provides an ever-changing border to the University of Michigan-Flint campus. Surface ripples shatter sunlight into glitter on a clear day and soothe with the sounds of their movement.
“The Flint River was never the problem,” says Monique Wilhelm, the laboratory manager for the university’s department of chemistry and biochemistry.
many residents, Wilhelm noticed the difference streaming from her faucets in the labs after the city siphoned from the Flint River instead of Detroit—a move that was supposed to save the city money. But complaints to city hall about metallic flavors and offensive odors started almost immediately after that change in April 2014, and within weeks, some people were buying bottled water.
Color offered obvious clues that prompted residents to protest at city council meetings. Urine yellow. Cloudy orange. Coffee brown.
Measurements from the 1966 study had shown elevated chloride concentrations in the Flint River, still true in 2014.
“One of the big suspects is all the road salts,” says Terese Olson, an associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The amount of deicing salt sold in the U.S. in 1940 compared to 2010 has increased by a factor of 60. Heavy rains and snow melts wash those salts into local watersheds.
Flint’s treatment process to purify the river water into drinking water then further aggravated the chemistry, Olson says.
Bacteria was detected in the system by August 2014, so city workers boosted the amounts of chlorine disinfectant twice. Plus, similar to most surface waters, the Flint River contains tiny organic bits. Employees at the treatment plant used ferric chloride as a coagulant to capture these dissolved particles.
“They're thinking about each problem separately,” Wilhelm says, “instead of thinking of the water as a system.”
Corrosion spread unchecked through 580 miles of main pipe distribution, 7,000 main valves, and 28,000 service lines that connect primary conduits to individual buildings.
Tap water turned the colors of corroded pipes as the metals reacted with water coursing with chlorine compounds. Although scientifically accurate, a typical refrain in news pieces—the corrosive river—misleads in terms of human contact. Kayaks and swimmers don’t disintegrate.
But the pipes did.
Lead-bearing particles detached from the pipe walls, and 100,000 residents interacted daily with the destructive neurotoxin.
Flint students celebrate their school's last prom before the institution closes
They washed their peppers and carrots with poisoned water in the autumn of 2014. People brushed their teeth and served their pets all winter, and city officials ignored concerned citizens even after the local GM engine plant stopped using the water in December due to corrosion on its machines.
So children drank lead at school fountains by spring 2015, and babies drank lead in formula during the summer and autumn.
Trust in the invisible is a definition of faith. Un when the concrete river channel surrenders to native tree trunks, people couldn’t see the leaching lead. A straightforward modification might have prevented them from needing to.
“We have no explanation”
Flint passed an ordinance in 1897 that required service lines be made of lead, the prime choice for the era.
Plenty of construction happened in the interim centuries, but the information for which type of line connected to which homes existed on 100,000 paper index cards discovered in the water department’s basement.
Digitization started in late 2015, and the University of Michigan helped design an algorithm to predict clusters with the highest lihood of dangerous plumbing.
Flint switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015, but public health effects from lead exposure prompted emergency declarations from the state and federal governments in early 2016.
The city then launched an aggressive rehabilitation campaign, and in the past three years, crews have explored 21,298 homes and replaced lead service lines at 8,260.
The work should finish in July, according to Jameca Patrick-Singleton, the chief recovery officer in her hometown.
“Born and raised,” she says. “I remember as a kid, sitting on the bank and having picnics. Flint River is one of the things that makes Flint beautiful. We love our river. We just don’t want to drink from it untreated.”
Many cities use orthophosphate, which interacts with lead and iron pipes to create a physical boundary that prevents drinking water from touching the actual metals.
Flint water treatment plant operators never added the crucial ingredient.
“That decision was not a mistake,” says Hall, the former legal counsel for the state’s investigation. “Not because we forgot to. Not bureaucratic overlap between EPA and DEQ. They simply didn’t do it because the state told them don’t do it.”
Archived emails and subsequent testimonies show the directive from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, but the documents don’t illuminate why.
“Five years later,” Hall says, “we have no explanation for the most simple, direct causal fact that led to the Flint water crisis.”
State and federal funds for repairs and social services combined with grants and charitable contributions—bottled water prominent among them—have already totaled more than a half billion dollars. Anti-corrosion chemicals would have cost about $150 a day.
The most recent testing of Flint’s drinking water, sourced again from Detroit, marked lead at four parts per billion, well clear of the 15 that requires action. Those results account for a 90th-percentile rating. In other words, 90 percent of the homes comply with the federal standard.
“And that’s when the system works,” Hall says. “It’s a system that defines success as some people having it and some people not. Flint should just make it brutally apparent to everybody.”
Michigan represents the country’s closest approximation of an inland island, with coastlines that touch four of the five Great Lakes. A report from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission concluded that the state should “aspire to have the safest drinking water in the nation” instead of aligning its decisions “on a legally possible interpretation” of the rules.
Meanwhile, the state fired Hall in early 2019 from his unpaid position as independent counsel on the grounds that the attorney general’s office can represent Michigan on both sides of the water crisis investigation. Plaintiffs in some of the many lawsuits still in progress have challenged the move in court.
As for the river, Fedewa and the watershed group point to positive data demonstrating a healthy ecosystem. Indicators include the team’s biodiversity surveys of dragonfly larvae and other benthic macroinvertebrates sensitive to water quality.
A new public kayak and canoe access will also open this summer, around the time crews will excavate the last residential lead service lines.
Even with overhaul, lead can still infiltrate homes with old brass fixtures or lead solder on pipes.
Tests will continue, and according to Patrick-Singleton, the mayor won’t lift the city’s emergency declaration until the scientific and medical communities clear the drinking water.
Fedewa says she and her team focus on educational outreach and experiential opportunities that reconnect residents with their river, an always-flowing reminder that there is no safe level of lead and there is no substitute for water.
Dustin Renwick’s reporting was supported in part by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. He is a triathlete and a freelance journalist.”,”author”:null,”date_published”:”2019-04-25T00:00:00.000Z”,”lead_image_url”:”https://i.natgeofe.com/n/8dc4729f-f3ad-4906-8fed-02c923ac7e66/flint-river-relationships-greeson-01.jpg?w=1200″,”dek”:null,”next_page_url”:null,”url”:”https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/flint-water-crisis-fifth-anniversary-flint-river-pollution”,”domain”:”www.nationalgeographic.com”,”excerpt”:”As the Michigan cityâs water emergency lurches on, pipes are still being replacedâand public trust remains low.”,”word_count”:1766,”direction”:”ltr”,”total_pages”:1,”rendered_pages”:1}