FLINT, Mich. — Responding to calls that his administration has not done enough to help this city and its lead-poisoned water supply, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) dispatched his state’s National Guard on Tuesday to help distribute clean water.
More than 30 National Guard troops are expected to be on the ground by Friday, where they will go door to door to hand out water bottles, filters and testing kits to residents in this city of nearly 100,000.
The move comes amid rising anger here after it took 19 months for state officials to address a health crisis caused by the government itself, when it changed the source of its water to save money. Evidence has emerged that suggests state officials knew of the enormity of the problem and appeared to ignore or even downplay it.
For Gladyes Williamson, 61, a former worker at the Buick engine plant in Flint, apologies, free water and promises are meaningless. She, like many people in this city with a well-documented history of chronic unemployment and blight, says she believes they are the collateral damage of a coverup. She stood outside city hall Monday lugging a jug half-filled with orange water she says has been flowing out of her tap all summer.
“We are expendable,” she says.
As the scandal grows, the political fallout has only just begun. A joint investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency is now seeking answers into the timeline of events. Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the agency tasked with switching Flint’s water supply, resigned last month. And the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and National Resources Defense Council, among others, filed a class action lawsuit against the city, state and county, on behalf of the citizens of Flint, claiming officials had knowledge of dangerous levels of lead in the water but did nothing to protect the public health.
At the center of the controversy is Snyder, who declared a state of emergency last week, three months after Oct. 1, when he says he knew the water was tainted. The declaration resulted in promises of more testing and the distribution of water at local fire stations.
On Monday during a news conference in Flint, Snyder offered few specifics about what the state’s next response would be. He told residents where they could pick up water, home testing kits and tap filters, and said officials would test water in schools and day-care centers. He pledged that he was seeking federal assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with guidance from a task force he established.
“It does take some time for us to put a request together [to FEMA] for specific assistance, and we’re undergoing that process,” he said.
But for residents like Williamson, time is running short. She likes to start her morning like anyone else: with breakfast and a shower. But for her, that means preparing her morning coffee with bottled water she now has to buy in bulk, and driving 14 miles twice a week to her sister’s house in nearby Clio to bathe. Her one word to describe her new life: “Pathetic.”
The crisis first became known in April 2014, after the city stopped getting its water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and switched to the regional Karegnondi Water Authority, which uses Lake Huron as its source. But there was no pipeline yet built to Flint, so the city used water from the Flint River as a stopgap measure. Soon, residents complained of foul-smelling water pouring out of faucets in sometimes strange colors.
Months of public complaints of health problems followed, including reports of skin rashes, that led to little action by the city. By April, independent testing by Virginia Tech showed elevated levels of lead in the water.
Then in September, researchers at Hurley Medical Center in Flint reported that blood tests showed that lead contamination in children younger than 5 had nearly doubled since the water changed, and in areas in Flint where lead levels were highest, contamination in children tripled. According to the Centers of Disease Prevention and Control, children under age 6 are most at risk from lead exposure, as even low levels can cause permanent brain damage.
The researchers recommended that the city stop using Flint River water “as soon as possible.”
The city was found in violation of federal Safe Drinking Water Act provisions since January 2015 and the EPA is conducting an audit of the water system it says will publish sometime this year. A state task force also concluded in December that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality violated the federal lead and copper rule, which calls for treating water to avoid pipe corrosion problems. The task force said the department’s failure to do so led to the contamination of Flint’s water.
Because the Flint River water’s high chloride content wasn’t treated as required, it weakened the city’s aging water distribution system, which contains a high percentage of lead pipes and plumbing, the task force said. That led to a “perfect storm for lead leaching into drinking water,” according to the Hurley report.
By the time the city unplugged from the Flint River and switched back to the Detroit system in October, some in Flint had been drinking the water for more than 19 months. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley who co-authored the report, says it will likely take a minimum of 10 years before any, possibly deadly, health consequences surface.
“All of these are long-term problems. They’re irreversible,” says Hanna-Attisha.
The state is bearing the brunt of the blame because the decisions leading up to the crisis were made while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, in place since 2011. Emails requested through the Freedom of Information Act by Virginia Tech show that EPA officials were aware of the crisis as early as last summer and that both state and federal officials failed to take public health concerns seriously and even downplayed them when presented with independent testing results.
After reporters first started making inquiries into the water crisis, a trail of the email correspondence suggests a certain indifference.
“Apparently it’s going to be a thing now,” wrote Karen Tommasulo, a spokesperson at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in July 2015, when passing on a reporter’s early inquiry about Flint water.
Other emails show a more serious lack of concern. In July 2015, Brad Wurfel, another MDEQ spokesperson, wrote to administration officials that “residents of Flint do not need to worry about lead in their water supply,” and the department’s recent sampling didn’t indicate an imminent health threat from lead or copper.
Wurfel resigned Dec. 30. Sara Wurfel, his wife, was Snyder’s press secretary until November, when she resigned to take a job in the private sector.
Other email threads show that the state was warned by certain EPA officials as early as February 2015 that Flint’s water likely contained lead and that the state hadn’t properly used corrosion control methods to mitigate the lead from leaching into the water. On Feb. 27, EPA water specialist Miguel Del Toral, wrote state officials to say that the method they were advising residents to follow to test water in their homes would not necessarily provide accurate results and, in fact, would provide “false assurance to residents about the true lead levels in the water.” He also warned that there was likely particulate lead in the water. Private emails among state officials show they were alerted to to the crisis.
Snyder said he waited until last week to declare a state of emergency for both Flint and Genesee County because he needed a formal request from the county to act. He also said that, since October, the state conducted over 700 water tests and distributed more than 12,000 water filters to residents, among other efforts. “Those actions were not good enough. We’ve worked hard but we need to get more connection to the citizens of Flint,” he said.
State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D), a Flint resident, characterizes the state’s actions as “deny a problem and then discredit the people and then delay action.”
“There’s no question they are spinning, and why they are spinning I don’t understand yet,” he says. “The administration is acting like this is a public relations problem for the governor and not acting like this is a public health crisis, and that is the problem.”
In the meantime, social media and volunteers are becoming key factors in moving water into the hands of those who need it most. Churches and social service agencies are using social media to get the word out that water is needed in Flint, and caseloads are arriving daily, from both individuals and companies from as far away as California and North Carolina.
Nearly 150 cases of bottled water sit on the community room stage at First Trinity Missionary Baptist in downtown Flint where, starting Tuesday, volunteers began giving away water twice a week. At Mission of Hope across town, water is stockpiled down hallways, in the basement, and along stairs. While people are free to take a case each, mountains of tied plastic bags holding five bottles each are set aside for those who show up on foot, including the homeless or those who can’t afford a car or don’t have money for gas.
“I do everything with the water,” says Christine Brown, 55, as she tramps through the snow to load a case of water into the back seat of her car. “I don’t use Flint water for nothing.” Laid off from her city job in 2008, she has been unemployed ever since. She shows up at Mission of Hope for water on the days she can afford the gas to fill her car. “This is very hard on people. Really hard,” she says.
Mary Kennedy-Jacob, 50, a schoolteacher, says that while she can afford to outfit her house with filters and buy water, she worries about the homeless and elderly who are isolated. She says the nearly two-year delay in getting Lansing officials to recognize the problem has exacerbated tensions.
“You can feel the despair. How can this be happening in the United States of America?” she asks.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who took office in November, says that while her office remains hindered by state management, her role is to push Snyder and federal officials to take more action. Weaver declared a state of emergency in Flint in December, one month before the governor.
“He has been responding since I put that in place,” she said. Next week, she is meeting FEMA officials in Washington. While three administrators are on the ground already, Weaver says she wants action expedited to bring immediate resources to residents there, even if it takes the National Guard to help.
“That’s what we need and what we deserve to have happen,” she says.
Weaver says she is mindful of not making the situation political. “I’m trying to do what I was elected to do. I can use my energy getting angry with him, but that doesn’t help getting our needs in the city of Flint,” she says, adding that she is “looking forward to the outcome” of the federal investigation.
Two blocks away at First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, Katrina Tillman preps water to give away. While she is angry at the sluggish response from state officials, she says she is proud of the grass-roots actions the people have taken to help each other.
“This city has come together in a way we did not expect to,” she said. “Flint is a hurting town, but maybe this is what it takes.”
Flint, about 70 miles north of Detroit, is one of the poorest cities in the United States. Forty percent of the city’s population lives below the poverty line, making it the second most poverty-stricken city of its size in the nation, according to U.S. Census data.
“The city was on life support as it was and really, this is the last thing they needed. It’s the financial equivalent of pulling the plug,” says Marc Edwards, a national expert on municipal water quality at Virginia Tech, who has been leading a team of researchers in conducting tests of the city’s water. Edwards estimates that correcting damage from corrosion to the Flint water system will cost between $20 million and $200 million. The city says the replacement cost for an entirely new system is estimated at $1.5 billion.
Guarino is a freelance writer.