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Flint water falls below federal lead limits, but residents are still asked to use filtered water

Take a look at the key moments that led up to Flint, a city of 90,000, getting stuck with contaminated water. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Months of testing have found that the water in Flint, Mich., no longer contains lead levels that exceed federal limits, officials announced Tuesday.

But though the city has reached that positive threshold, residents are still being advised to use filtered water for drinking and cooking, while the city continues to replace thousands of lead service lines. Last week, Flint marked its 1,000th day without reliably clean drinking water.

“This is good news and the result of many partners on the local, county, state and federal levels working together to restore the water quality in the City of Flint,” Heidi Grether, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said in a statement. “The Flint water system is one of the most monitored systems in the country for lead and copper, and we remain committed to continuing work in Flint as the city recovers.”

That sliver of good news was a long time coming for the once-thriving manufacturing hub that has long suffered the consequences of economic decline. But it did little to dent the mistrust in government that remains in Flint or to convince many people dealing with the crisis that it is nearing an end.

“It is nowhere near the end of the story,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who helped expose the lead crisis more than a year ago after discovering skyrocketing rates of blood lead levels in local children.

She said that even though lead levels in the city’s water have now tested beneath the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion, the existing regulations themselves are “weak” and do not ensure lead-free water. In addition, thousands of lead pipes remain in the city — an infrastructure project that will likely take years to address — making it important that residents continue to use adequate water filters to make sure the water coming from their taps isn’t dangerous, she said.

“Once those lead pipes are replaced,” Hanna-Attisha said, “then hopefully the people of Flint will regain the trust that has been shattered in their drinking water.”

That trust is unlikely to return anytime soon.

“I’m so mad that I can’t even think straight,” Gina Luster, a community organizer for the advocacy group Flint Rising, said Tuesday.

On one hand, she said she worried that news of Flint’s lead levels no longer exceeding federal limits would lead some residents to mistakenly assume the water was safe, even though the threat of lead and bacterial problems with the water remain. “I’m screaming all over social media, ‘Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. There’s more than lead in the water.’ ”

At the same time, she expressed a sentiment common among many Flint residents about the new findings: Skepticism. In the early days of the water crisis, government officials repeatedly assured residents the water was fine, despite growing evidence that it was causing a range of health problems. Now, some residents still look warily upon pronouncements that their water is growing safer, even though that’s what the testing has shown.

“They’ve fooled us too many times,” Luster said. “I’m not going anywhere near it. … I don’t think we’ll ever trust the water again. I think you have an entire city that’s going to be suffering PTSD about water for the rest of their lives.”

The Flint water crisis is considered among the worst environmental disasters in the country’s history, exposing a city of nearly 100,000 people — more than 40 percent of whom live in poverty, according to Census data — to tainted tap water for months on end. Thousands of those were children under 6, who are among the most susceptible to the dangers of lead poisoning and can suffer lifelong physical and cognitive problems if affected.

‘If I could afford to leave, I would.’ In Flint, a water crisis with no end in sight.

Flint had previously purchased its water from Detroit, but in early 2014, city officials switched to water from the Flint River in an effort to save money. The city was being managed by an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) at the time.

However, officials failed to properly treat the water by applying chemicals to prevent corrosion of pipes. As a result, rust, iron and lead were able to seep into the water piped into people’s homes. While residents complained about the smell and color of their tap water and reported rashes and hair loss, government officials at all levels largely brushed aside the concerns for months.

Public health officials say that lead exposure can seriously affect a person’s body. Even low levels of lead in a child’s blood can impact a child’s IQ and ability to pay attention, effects that cannot be reversed, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Investigators have filed dozens of criminal charges against 13 current and former state and local officials stemming from the crisis. The Environmental Protection Agency said that Michigan had failed to properly respond to the crisis. Last fall, the EPA inspector general faulted the agency for its own response, saying that it should have issued an emergency order to protect residents seven months before it actually did that.

According to the state Department of Environmental Quality, Flint’s water system now tests at levels “comparable to cities with similar size and age of infrastructure in Michigan and across the nation.” The state agency said this was based on testing at a number of locations over the last six months of 2016.

This is based on the “action level” required for a utility to take steps to replace pipes and improve corrosion controls, a federal rule that has come under criticism for decades.

Snyder apologized to the people of Flint during his State of the State address a year ago, saying that he was sorry “and I will fix it.” Last week, during this year’s address, he called what happened there “an unacceptable crisis” and vowed that the state’s efforts to help were not over, a sentiment he echoed Tuesday after the new test results were announced.

“There is still more work to do in Flint, and I remain committed to helping the residents recover and restore their city,” Snyder said in a statement. He called the lead results “one more step along the path toward Flint’s future.”

On Tuesday, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said that despite the positive test results, the city would remain on guard. She said residents could continue picking up free bottled water at distribution sites around the city and that officials would continue to provide free filters and replacement cartridges.

“We are not out of the woods yet. My goal has not changed,” Weaver said in a statement. “All of the lead-tainted pipes in Flint still need to be replaced.”

This post has been updated.

Further reading:

EPA should have intervened in Flint water crisis months earlier, watchdog says

One city’s solution to drinking water contamination? Get rid of every lead pipe.

It’s not just Flint. Lead taints water across the U.S., EPA records show.