As media coverage has dwindled, the problem in Flint, Michigan has nevertheless persisted. A refresher: in 2014 the city switched water supplies to the Flint River, and did not treat the water before supplying residents with it to “ensure it didn’t cause corrosion in the pipes.” Residents began complaining about the odor and discoloration of the water, but public officials denied that there was a problem. The water contained E. coli, and total coliform bacteria which prompted the city to increase chlorination, but that ignored the issue of lead contamination. The state began buying bottled water due to the lead contamination and possibly carcinogenic disinfection byproducts, however only for government employees.
Today, the issue is far from solved, and some residents of Flint have acquired irreversible health issues. According to a statement from a local medical center obtained by NPR, “2.1 percent of children age 5 and under had elevated blood lead levels prior to the switch to Flint River water, compared to 4.0 percent after the switch.” Any degree of exposure to lead, a neurotoxin, is harmful and can cause anemia, kidney damage, and intellectual impairment. Adults are not immune, but children are considered more at risk for lead poisoning because they are still developing.
In early 2016, President Obama declared a state of emergency and the Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order. The governor of Michigan even stated, “Let me be blunt. This was a failure of government at all levels. Local, state and federal officials — we all failed the families of Flint.” After years of bottled water being flown in, city officials said the tap water is finally safe, but residents are not buying it. The people of Flint have become skeptical of government officials because the negligence and denial of the local government caused and lengthened the crisis. The resentment is clear in a statement made to WNEM by Flint resident Debra Coleman, “They did us in. I mean, it’s bull****. People are sick. People have died. But there’s nothing we can do.”
Nevertheless, there was something they could (and did) do. The crisis sparked a surge in local activism that aided in exposing the contamination and aiding the townspeople. A citizen even won a top environmental award for her efforts to uncover the water pollution. According to a press release from the organizers of the Goldman Environmental Prize, “LeeAnne Walters led a citizens’ movement that tested the tap water in Flint, Michigan, and exposed the Flint water crisis, compelling the local, state, and federal governments to take action to ensure access to clean drinking water.”
However, the adults weren’t alone in the fight for clean water. Mari Copeny, a.k.a. “Little Miss Flint” wrote a letter to President Obama in 2016, urging him to come to Flint. Read the text of the letter and Pres. Obama’s response here. Her letter prompted Pres. Obama to visit Flint and witness the crisis himself. Mari works hard to fundraise and has given Flint kids backpacks, holiday toys, and tickets to see the movie “Black Panther.” She is a beacon of positivity and dedication in her city and reminds us “Don’t forget Flint.”
Michigan Attorney General Bill Shuette was not going to “forget” what happened in Flint. The failure of the local government prompted him to investigate, and the investigation has led to criminal charges against more than a dozen officials. Amongst these, charges were brought against the head of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services for alleged involuntary manslaughter for the death of an elderly man in 2015. Additionally, the contamination correlates with the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that sickened 90 people and killed 12, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The 58% increase in fetal deaths and 12% drop in fertility rate are also attributed to the polluted water, according to PBS.
Now, Michigan is taking action against the loosely enforced EPA regulations by working to become the first state to ban lead pipes for drinking water. However, this is only a step towards an estimated 20-year process of replacing the pipes that would not even begin until 2021. Many view the banning of lead pipes as essential to public health, and in a recent statement, Cyndi Roper, Michigan senior policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said “Getting lead services lines out of the ground is the most effective way to reduce the potential for dangerous water contamination.”
The stricter regulations would entail new standards for the maximum acceptable concentration of lead in drinking water, and require more thorough and frequent sampling of residential tap water. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act, a lead concentration exceeding 15 parts per billion (ppb) would prompt action from the EPA. According to the EPA, the actions taken would include taking further steps optimize corrosion control treatment (for water systems serving 50,000 people that have not fully optimized their corrosion control), educating the public about lead in drinking water and actions consumers can take to reduce their exposure to lead, and replacing the portions of lead service lines (lines that connect distribution mains to customers) under the water system’s control. Many hope that the stricter lead regulations will be adopted by the rest of the nation.
These new regulations would bring about measures to hopefully prevent another Flint water crisis. In addition to a human health crisis, the catastrophe in Flint is also viewed as a humanitarian crisis because of the UN-recognized human right to clean water. Amid such struggle, the strength and resilience of the people of Flint has been truly admirable.