“Never again can we allow what happened in Flint, Michigan,” President Biden said on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon this August inside the East Room of the White House.
The admonition came as the president touted a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that had just cleared the U.S. Senate. He spoke of rebuilding the nation’s roads and bridges, boosting public transit and constructing electric vehicle charging stations.
And replacing pipes. Lots of pipes.
The legislation would set aside roughly $55 billion to repair and replace the nation’s aging water and wastewater infrastructure, including funds to eradicate lead pipes that remain buried in communities around the country. “Millions of lead pipes carrying drinking water to our homes and schools and day-care centers — they’re finally going to be replaced,” Biden said.
As he spoke, more than 500 miles to the northwest, Flint was already into its seventh year of wrestling with one of the most disastrous, high-profile water crises in the nation’s history.
In early 2014, with the city under the control of a government-appointed emergency manager, officials had switched Flint’s water source in a bid to save money. The state had failed, however, to ensure that proper corrosion-control chemicals were added to the new water supply — an oversight that eventually resulted in lead to leech from the city’s aging pipes, flow into homes and threaten an entire community.
Now, this once-poisoned city is on the brink of a milestone. A lead water pipe removal program, established under a 2017 court order issued as part of a massive lawsuit on behalf of Flint residents, is inching toward a close. Block by block, house by house, the city and its contractors have excavated and checked more than 27,000 pipes to determine what hidden risks remain under the ground.
The effort has led the city to replace more than 10,000 lead pipes so far, officials say.
While other communities await the funding and the political will to overhaul crumbling water infrastructure, this monumental undertaking has demonstrated that it is possible for cities to rid themselves of the lingering health risk running into their homes — that, years from now, there could be a day when parents in America no longer need to worry that the water in their taps might poison their children.
But the moment has also highlighted another truth: The end of lead pipe replacements does not mean the end of the catastrophe for many in Flint.
Prosecutions of former government officials involved in the tragedy are ongoing, as residents await accountability. A $641 million settlement of civil claims with the state of Michigan has yet to be finalized. And while Flint’s water quality is monitored regularly and has met federal guidelines for five years running, some residents continue to harbor distrust and doubt after governments at every level failed them. Many still rely on bottled water, even after having their pipes replaced.
As a part of Flint’s recovery ends, here are glimpses at how some residents view the closing of one chapter — as well as the challenges and questions that remain.
Caralene Tyus, 65
“If I get the opportunity to leave, I’m leaving,” said Tyus, a homeowner who moved back to Flint in 2014 from Texas.
A retired medical receptionist and one of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit over the water failures, Tyus said she suffered hair loss she believes was a result of showering in the contaminated Flint water — one of numerous health problems reported by residents.
She has found the pipe replacement program to be complicated and confusing. She recalls that crews came to dig in front of her home nearly two years ago, but she said they put in only what looked to be a connector on her line. She didn’t see anything replaced or removed and has struggled to understand how to make sure she has no lead line still running to her home.
Tyus said she still notices what appears to be mineral deposits coming from her water. She goes to her daughter’s home in the suburbs to shower, and relies on bottled and filtered water for drinking and cooking. She is skeptical that the predominantly Black residents of Flint will receive much more help and wonders what the pipe replacement program amounts to if she and other residents still don’t trust the water.
“I still can’t wash my hair. I still can’t use the water. I still can’t take a bath,” she said. “This is like a Third World country, and it just shouldn’t be.”
Mary Housley, 73
Housley has found the city’s pipe replacement program confusing. Workers came to her home more than two years ago and dug up her water line. Earlier this summer, however, a different crew returned and said she may still have a lead line connecting to the street.
According to Housley, the workers didn’t have records for her home due to inconsistent record keeping.
“They say [the water] is okay to drink. But when this first started [in 2014], they said it was okay to drink. So I’m just going to continue to do what I’ve been doing,” she said.
Housley has been relying on five-gallon jugs of water for cooking and drinking, and she has no plans to change that practice.
“It used to be if a government official told you something you could count on it being so, but I don’t think that’s today,” she said. “Will we ever have faith enough to just believe what a government official tells you?”
Aaron Neeley, 28
Neeley works as a data collector for Flint Registry, a project that connects people to city services and other health and wellness programs and works to understand how the water crisis has affected the community.
A father of two whose younger daughter was born during the disaster, he still relies on bottled water even though he recently had his own water service line replaced. Neeley has refused to pay his water bill since 2015, arguing that he can’t rely on the water from his tap.
Neeley said he is among the residents who would like to see the city help with secondary problems that tainted water caused in homes, such as damage to appliances and internal pipes.
“More people are concerned about getting their pipes inside the home replaced,” he said. “Their pipes … were destroyed by a city problem, but now the responsibility to fix it is on the residents, which is totally unfair.”
Lisa Pasbjerg, 50
“The fact that they have managed to get all these pipes replaced is probably a good sign … Let’s give some credit where credit is due,” said Lisa Pasbjerg, who bought her home in Flint in 2018 and had a positive experience with a crew that replaced her lead service line the following year. “It’s clear that that was the right thing to do, and it needs to be done across the country.”
But because she still has other lead pipes in her basement, Pasbjerg uses bottled water for drinking and cooking and uses the filter to give water to her dogs. She also knows that others are still waiting for new pipes.
Pasbjerg also worries about renters who live at properties where pipes haven’t been replaced. And she worries about the fate of thousands of children who were exposed to lead-tainted water in Flint and what legacy that will leave.
“I think that we will be unable to say this water crisis is over for another generation,” she said. “This is a cautionary tale. This could happen to any community anywhere in the country.”
Diana Wiley Washington, 58
A Flint public school teacher, Washington delivers bottled water to seniors on behalf of her church, Ebenezer Ministries, where her pastor wanted to make sure the congregation looked after some of its most vulnerable members.
At the moment, plenty of distrust remains among those she shows up to help. Many current residents, she insists, are too traumatized to fully trust the system again.
Washington lived in Flint during the height of the water crisis but eventually moved to a nearby suburb. Even there, she still relies on bottled water. To Washington, the point of the pipe replacement program is the future, not the present.
“It’s overdue in trying to make it safe for our next generation,” she said.
Harold Harrington, 60
“You can replace the lead lines, and that’s just the start,” said Harrington, the business manager of UA local 370 Plumbers and Pipefitters. He and others did volunteer work for several years starting in 2015 to install water filters, deliver bottled water and replace faucets in Flint homes.
He lived in the city for a time during the water crisis but later moved. Like with other Flint residents, the line to his home had lead, and he didn’t want his grandkids coming over and being exposed to water that was potentially dangerous.
Harrington said the pipe replacements have been a positive start and a necessary undertaking, but it’s not the end of the story. Lead remains inside older homes, in plumbing fixtures and galvanized pipes. Renters remain in a tough spot if property owners haven’t taken the initiative to make updates.
There are ongoing problems, as well. With so many people having left Flint over time, the water system is now too big for its population — leading to water that languishes in pipes.
“So many people moved out and so many plants shut down,” he said. “This system is so oversized, the water sits in these mains too long and it loses its chemicals and now you got a problem with bacteria, also, besides lead.”
Harrington also warns that other cities could face similar fates.
“This could happen anywhere,” he said. “The lead pipes that are in the ground are never going to go away. They’ll last forever unless you take them out and then replace them.”
Pastor Allen Overton, 55
“We were instrumental in helping the people of Flint’s voice be heard. I’ll always take a lot of satisfaction in knowing we did that,” says Overton, who was a party to the lawsuit that led to a 2017 settlement in which Michigan set aside nearly $100 million to replace the city’s lead and galvanized pipes.
Four years later, the pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church said he takes “great comfort” in knowing that a significant amount of lead is no longer beneath the ground in Flint.
But Overton still frets over the lead that might remain. He wishes the pipe replacement program had mandated checks at every home in Flint — not just where owners requested an inspection. He knows that even homeowners who had pipes replaced, including some members of his congregation, still rely on bottled water.
“The experience for people is certainly not over. There are people who still have a great deal of fear, concern about drinking this water,” Overton said.
Tests have shown the water is now safe, and officials have promised residents that they can trust their taps, but Overton sees the doubts that linger. “We trusted before, and we got burned,” he says. “It’s going to be awhile before we can trust anybody again. It’s going to take some time. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
The pastor knows how far the city has come, and what a long road lies ahead.
“We’ve come to a close of this chapter,” he said. “But I don’t think the book is over.”