Saturday, January 09, 2016

Flint Wants Safe Water, and Someone to Answer for Its Crisis
New York Times
JAN. 9, 2016

The Flint River in downtown Flint, Mich.
Credit Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

FLINT, Mich. — A caravan of Genesee County sheriff’s office cruisers snaked its way through the streets here on Thursday, doling out water filters and jugs of water to frustrated and terrified residents who have been trying to cope for more than a year with the public health crisis that has been flowing out of their taps.

Shortly after officials switched the source of their drinking water to the Flint River from Lake Huron in April 2014 to save money, residents started complaining that their tap water looked strange, tasted bad and caused rashes. But not until the fall of 2015, when the water was found to have elevated levels of lead that were reflected in children’s blood, did state officials swing into action.

Now they are scrambling to address a situation that has endangered the health of Flint’s children and generated untold costs and anxiety.

“It’s ridiculous we have to live in such a way,” said Colette Brown, a Flint native who months ago stopped drinking tap water. She said the filter at her home needed a replacement cartridge.

“Put yourself in our shoes,” she said. “It’s hurting kids, the elderly. It’s hurting all of us.”

And there was plenty of blame to go around, she added. “It’s almost like a stepladder — you start from the top and you go all the way down to the bottom,” she said.

Switching the source of drinking water was meant to relieve some of the financial pressures on this struggling city. Flint has high rates of gun violence and crumbling infrastructure. And as manufacturing jobs have moved overseas, the population has steadily dropped to fewer than 100,000 — more than 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

But it was not long before some in Flint were pointing out the nasty color and odor of what was coming out of their taps, and digging into their wallets to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking, and baby wipes for bathing.

State and city leaders had largely dismissed residents’ complaints for months, assuring them that the water was safe and being tested regularly. With the emergence of the blood level data, officials began advising residents not to drink unfiltered tap water — a recommendation that remains in effect.

In October, Gov. Rick Snyder helped orchestrate a switch back to Lake Huron water. Though Mayor Karen Weaver called that a positive step, she said the change did not undo corrosion damage from the river water that caused pipes to leach lead.

As of last month, the state had identified 43 people with elevated lead levels in their blood. Lead is toxic, and can cause stunted development in children.

Last month, the governor apologized to residents. On Tuesday he declared the city to be in a state of emergency — the same day that federal officials said they had opened an investigation into the water contamination. And in October, Mr. Snyder announced a state plan to distribute free water filters and provide water testing to residents. But many residents remain unsatisfied.

“Their one job was to make sure our water was safe,” Melissa Mays, a Flint resident, said of Michigan environmental officials. Ms. Mays, who has helped organize protests and been among the most outspoken critics of the water situation, said she worried about how the water might be affecting her young sons’ health.

“They cut every corner,” she said. “They did more to cover up than actually fix it. That’s criminal.”

In a scathing initial report last month, a task force appointed by Mr. Snyder found that the State Department of Environmental Quality’s response to health concerns “was often one of aggressive dismissal, belittlement and attempts to discredit these efforts and the individuals involved.” That approach, the report added, was “completely unacceptable.”

After the letter was released, Mr. Snyder, a Republican and former businessman who took office in 2011, apologized and announced the resignation of the director of the Department of Environmental Quality.

On Thursday, after he met with Ms. Weaver, Mr. Snyder told reporters that he would work to provide “a broad-based suite of services” to address the water issues and other problems in Flint. Among the services could be more water testing, more filters, and health care and education support for those affected. Many residents have called for state money to replace the city’s old pipe infrastructure — which the mayor has said could cost up to $1.5 billion — and a fund to address any developmental impact on children.

“You have to earn trust,” Mr. Snyder said. “This will be a process by showing the steps we’re taking to be proactive.”

Many residents are reserving judgment. Researchers at Virginia Tech who detected the lead contamination last year released state employee emails obtained through a public records request. In a message in July, the governor’s chief of staff at the time, Dennis Muchmore, wrote that he was “frustrated by the water issue in Flint” and that “folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us.”

In response, a state health official assured Mr. Muchmore that there was no evidence of increased lead poisoning, a finding later called into question.

A spokesman for Mr. Snyder said the message indicated that the governor’s staff members were engaged and seeking answers on behalf of worried community members.

Some residents are quick to point out that it was an emergency manager appointed by the governor who approved the 2014 switch away from Lake Huron water to save money.

Wantwaz Davis, a member of Flint’s City Council, said the emergency manager “created this problem.”

“What the governor should do is become fully accountable to this problem and give us the finances that we need to rectify the problem,” Mr. Davis said.

Some efforts already underway have added to residents’ frustrations. At City Hall on Thursday, where signs advertise free water filters, Quintina Swanson stopped by to pick up a replacement cartridge. But Ms. Swanson, 25, was told that the model she needed was out of stock, and that she would need to return later or go to a different distribution site.

Sheriff Robert J. Pickell of Genesee County, who organized the door-to-door water filter distribution, said traveling to another site was not always possible in a place like Flint. “People over in Lansing, they forget how the poor folks live,” Sheriff Pickell said, referring to the state capital. “They say they’re going to have a distribution center. They forget that not everybody has a car.”

Still, residents said they were grateful that state officials and federal investigators were now engaged. Ms. Weaver, a clinical psychologist elected last year largely on a promise to improve the water, praised Mr. Snyder for his emergency declaration, even as she cautioned that major commitments of time and money would be needed.

“It does let us know that our voice is being heard,” Ms. Weaver said. “And for such a long time, the residents of the city said, ‘We do not have a voice.’ ”

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