TAINTED WATER, LITTLE HOPE

In downtrodden Flint, Mich., lead contamination in the water is the worst blow yet.

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Flint’s tap water was poisoned with lead when the city switched its source to the highly corrosive Flint River in April 2014 as a cost-saving measure. They failed to add anti-corrosive chemicals to protect aging pipes. Lead and other sediment leached into the water, which is now undrinkable without a filter.

Brittny Giles, Flint parent

Listen to Brittny Giles, Flint parent.

Brittny bathes her 9-month-old daughter using bottled water.

Delmont Jackson, a volunteer for the sheriff’s department

Listen to Delmont Jackson, a volunteer for the sheriff’s department. This is what Flint tap water looks like.

Scott Kincaid, United Auto Workers

Listen to Scott Kincaid, United Auto Workers.

For months, the state dismissed complaints of foul-smelling, strangely colored water and told residents it was safe to drink. When the public learned that wasn’t true, anger at government soared.

In October 2015, the city switched back to Lake Huron for its water supply, but the damage has not been undone. Aging pipes need to be replaced, and it’s still too dangerous to drink unfiltered tap water.

Authorities played down fears of widespread lead poisoning until a local pediatrician, Mona Hanna-Attisha, used hospital records to show it had spiked after the switch to Flint River water.

There is no safe level of lead in children. Blood tests only reveal lead ingested in the previous four weeks. Many parents are living with uncertainty about the impact on their children’s health.

Lead attacks the developing brains of children, but the damage, which can include problems with learning and behavior, may not be seen for years. More than 8,600 children have been exposed to the contaminated water.

Mona Hanna-Attisha, Flint pediatrician

Listen to Mona Hanna-Attisha, Flint pediatrician.

Shakela Palmer, Flint parent

Listen to Shakela Palmer, Flint parent, who worries for Flint’s children.

For now, most people are consuming only bottled water. Truckloads of donations from the state, FEMA and celebrities have poured in. But that is not a long-term solution.

The state began passing out water filters in Flint in early January but continued to warn children, pregnant women and others at high risk to drink only bottled water. Some people are still finding lead in water after it had passed through filters.

Flint is 57 percent black. Forty-two percent of city residents live below the poverty line.

Mona Hanna-Attisha, Flint pediatrician, explains Flint’s economic and social barriers. Flint is 57 percent black. Forty-two percent of city residents live below the poverty line.

Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, spoke at a fiery Feb. 1 rally, one example of residents insisting that the state would not have neglected the needs of an affluent white city.

Despite the undrinkable water, Brittny still has to pay a monthly water bill.

The average household paid $864.32 for water in 2015, though many were not able to drink or bathe in it. That was the highest rate of the 500 biggest water systems in the United States, and more than double the average for public water utilities in the nation.

Karen Weaver, mayor of Flint

Listen to Mayor Karen Weaver.

Weaver wants to replace 15,000 lead-lined pipes in the coming year. But Flint’s antiquated records make it difficult to figure out where the pipes are.

The price to install new pipes for those homes is estimated at $55 million. Replacing the city’s whole water system would cost more than $1 billion.

The poor and elderly are especially vulnerable to the crisis. Many don’t have the money to relocate, and others say it would be impossible to sell their homes without a safe water supply.

Flint was once a booming car manufacturing town, but now it stands as a skeleton of its former self.

Karen Weaver, mayor of Flint

Listen to Mayor Karen Weaver.

Flint once had 82,000 jobs at GM plants and their suppliers. Today there are about 6,000. As people abandon their homes, 10,000 are now vacant, and 11,000 empty lots dot the city.

The state has admitted that it failed in its legal responsibility to ensure the city’s aging pipes were protected. And the federal EPA delayed for months before sounding the alarm publicly.

As investigations continue, some have demanded criminal charges be brought against Gov. Rick Snyder and others.

Snyder recently issued an apology to Flint residents. “We are continuously working on ways to help the people of Flint recover,” he said.

Listen to Gov. Rick Snyder and his apology to Flint residents.

Delmont Jackson, a volunteer for the sheriff’s department

Listen to Delmont Jackson, a volunteer for the sheriff’s department

Brittny Giles was born and raised in Flint, but is considering leaving to give her children a better future.

Reporting Lenny Bernstein and Zoeann Murphy

Video Zoeann Murphy

Design and Graphics Shelly Tan and Osman Malik

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Additional credits

Photos of bottled Flint water Jake May/Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP

Photos of protestors Sam Owens/Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP

Video and audio of protestors AP

Video of Snyder Reuters

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