Five years ago, the Mayor of Flint, Michigan lifted a glass of water and toasted his city in what he proposed would be a change to save his city a small fortune by switching the city’s piping infrastructure over to the Flint river.
He couldn’t possibly have foreseen that this one change would lead to one of the biggest corruption scandals in a
city’s modern history, as well as twelve eventual deaths from an outbreak of
Legionnaire’s disease (that may or may not have been a direct causality). This move
would also cost him his job, and lead to the potential lead poisoning of Flint Michigan’s
most vulnerable underage citizens.
But what has happened in the interim? If we visited Flint now, what would we
find? Would we find the interim indictments and scandal has focused enough attention
on the problem that the issue has been “fixed”? No one has been incarcerated, despite
numerous articles and sound bites focusing blame on an atmosphere of governmental
corruption that has cost many their jobs. A new Mayor oversees the city, and despite
testing that demonstrates lead in Flint water systems is at the lowest level (4ppbillion)
since the water crisis began, people still stand in lines at the local Church for free
bottled water. Is there a new crisis in Flint, a crisis in trust?
To say their trust is broken might be putting it mildly. Flint residents have been
lied to repeatedly. Once the water was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River in
2014, residents began to complain that their water was murky. It smelled. Their skin
began to itch. They noticed the water was yellow-brown in color, far from clear. Yet
when they complained, they were lied to. The Mayor famously held a glass of murky
water up for the press and offered to drink it, declaring it safe. Most noticed he didn’t,
however, sip from the glass. It wasn’t until a local Pediatrician broke the news of toxic
lead levels resulting from her patients that the scandal began to emerge.
Pipes and infrastructure in older homes in Flint were corroding. Worse, a crucial
step that might have prevented the corrosion had been eliminated when the pipes were
switched. Children were exposed to lead by government officials who had insisted the
water was “safe” long after it began to be demonstrated that it wasn’t. By the time
government assistance and bottled water started arriving in Flint, Michigan, the city had
become an example of corruption. Worse, the corruption came at the expense of
vulnerable citizens, a city with fewer resources and a lower median income; residents
who had slim hopes for a future where Flint, Michigan could make a comeback to the
glory days of old.
Ironically, if you ask residents in Flint, they feel progress has been made in
numerous areas. With all the attention the scandal has brought to the city, Flint officials
have had to become more transparent with water testing, meeting regulatory
standards, although this has not always been the case. In 2015, Flint officials suspended
testing of water samples after they were found to be falsifying reports. By 2018,
however, they were not only meeting regulatory requirements for both lead AND
copper testing but had posted results that demonstrated the lowest findings in four
years since the crisis! Flint residents believe they may have the most frequently
monitored water in the entire country at this point, although this will not undo the
damage that has been done to the confidence levels of Flint citizens.
Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will be monitoring the
replacement of corroded and damaged pipes, to assure the replacement is completed
on time and according to plans originally put in place. A University of Michigan professor
estimates there are at least 7,500 service lines in a final phase of the Fast Start project,
possibly encompassing 4,000 to 8,000 service lines yet to be replaced. Since copper lines
do not need to be replaced, the city has already inspected 20,000 service lines and
replaced roughly 8,000 lead or galvanized pipes that were corroded.
City officials hope to complete the remainder of the pipe replacement project
by the end of the year, and with the assistance of the ACLU, Flint residents believe there
is a chance the work will be completed on time.
But what about the hopes and dreams of Flint residents? How is the city
surviving the scandal? What about the people who live there?
A recent poll of Flint residents asked them how many might be planning on
leaving the city. The answer? 54%. The problem? No one really knows how many
residents might have wanted to leave before the water crisis. Flint is one of the poorest
cities in the United States, and crime is high, although homicides have begun to
decrease in 2018. The median per capita income is ~ $16,500, and rents are high. 60% of
Flint children live in poverty, and although unemployment has dropped below 5%, many
adults lack the skills for fulltime or higher-paying jobs. Flint has 20,000 unmaintained
properties. Additionally, the nationwide opioid crisis has hit the city hard.
On an optimistic note, though, has been the hardiness of Flint’s citizens, who
can only be called survivors. Living during violence has changed attitudes in the city.
Residents have begun to realize they can affect positive change themselves, by being
the voice and the face of change. Violent crime declined 12 percentage points in 2018.
Flint city council members, in order to raise more cash, began a program to sell
confiscated weapons online, when they realized that nearly every 12-year-old in the
neighborhood had acquired the knowledge of where to purchase a weapon!
On the plus side, Flint is a city with four college campuses, a “major medical
center, and a vibrant arts scene.” It would be hard to believe that this city is down and
out just because of a water scandal. In fact, Glenn Wilson, a co-founder of Communities
First, Inc. a non-profit that converted an old school building into affordable senior
housing says, “we have great bones in our community” when describing the city…”
we’re heading in the right direction.”
Will Flint, Michigan residents regain the trust they lost? It is doubtful that will
happen overnight. The adults need to wait and see if the piping infrastructure is
completed on time and as promised. They need to see if water testing remains within
guidelines and if transparency continues. Obviously, residents lining up at the Church for
bottled water five years after the fact is a statement in itself!
There is also the matter of the children. Children were exposed to levels of lead
that may have been toxic to developing brains. No one knows what potential damage may be demonstrated in later years as these children grow. Will they encounter developmental or functional problems due to their exposure to lead? Their parents will
face concerns beyond those of providing for their future in a city where the
socio-economic situation has been compromised by corruption and scandal. ACLU will be
monitoring this vulnerable population as they begin to age and face challenges
1. Michiganradio.org “ACLU, NRDC lawyers watching to see if Flint completes lead pipe
replacement project on time.” Carmody, S., April 11, 2019.
2. Michiganradio.org “Does Flint have clean water? Yes, but it’s complicated.” Winowiecki,
E., August 21, 2019.
3. Mlive.com “Newest testing shows lead in Flint water at lowest level since water crisis
started.” Fonger, R., January 16, 2019.
4. Today.com “Flint residents still reeling from water crisis, 5 years later.” April 30, 2019.
5. USNews.com “Can Flint be fixed?” Bach, T., February 12, 2019.