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The Flint water crisis is not over

In this May 4, 2016 file photo, drinking fountains are marked "Do Not Drink Until Further Notice" at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster File

There's been a lot of noise in my Flint neighborhood this month.

Men wearing big coats and gloves drive bulldozers and forklifts up and down the street, sliding orange cones back and forth, sometimes blocking off whole intersections with their trucks. They use their heavy equipment to slice through the pavement and the thick roots of our 90-year-old silver maples. They dig giant holes and pull out chunks of old pipe. The workers are here from early in the morning until late at night, when the flashing yellow lights on their vehicles compete with the Christmas lights and candle-bedecked houses.

Some of us wave at the workers as we walk or drive by.

We might even work up the nerve to ask them: “While you're out here, would you mind replacing our water pipes?”

The trucks and machinery and commotion don't have anything to do with fixing Flint's lead-flaking water service lines. This fleet is owned by Consumers Energy, a utility company upgrading its natural gas service. For all the inconvenience, the upgrade is appreciated, but Flintstones still can't help but notice the irony here: The city hasn't had trouble with its natural gas infrastructure. Meanwhile, contaminated water continues to flow down hopelessly corroded pipes, leaching lead and providing a breeding ground for bacteria.

It just figures that almost three years after the city started drawing undertreated water that corroded our pipes — and one year after the resulting lead poisoning became a national news story — we find ourselves in the middle of completely unrelated and far less urgent improvements.

How the Flint water crisis happened

The Flint water crisis is a long story with hard-to-pinpoint origins in the deterioration of Michigan's manufacturing sector, white flight, and both public and private disinvestment from cities like Flint. More recently, Gov. Rick Snyder empowered the state to appoint emergency managers with wide-ranging powers over financially distressed cities and school districts. These managers could suspend elected officials, liquidate assets, renegotiate service contracts, dismantle whole departments, and disincorporate a city or school district.

It was just such an emergency manager who signed off on a plan for Flint to save money by drawing and treating its own drinking water from the Flint River instead of Detroit. That switch was made in April 2014.

Immediately, residents noticed rashes and hair loss and a variety of other ailments associated with the often rust-colored water. Both the emergency managers and (at that point symbolic) elected leadership dismissed these claims. As time went by, however, a parade of violations and health crises called attention to the water, over and over: boil notices across the city through the summer of 2014, total trihalomethanes violations beginning in December 2014, and then, by mid-2015, rumors of lead.

Some of my friends and neighbors were outraged from the start. Others — myself included — trusted the official-sounding reports and statistics trotted out by the city and the state-run Department of Environmental Quality, only to watch in horror as the evidence of contamination and neurotoxins in the water became too conspicuous to ignore.

The Department of Environmental Quality illegally hid evidence of contamination while the federal Environmental Protection Agency delayed a public announcement, but it all caught up with them in October 2015. A team of local activists brought in an independent research team from Virginia Tech. This team confirmed increases in drinking water lead levels. Shortly thereafter, a doctor associated with a local hospital proved conclusively that the blood lead levels in children had spiked significantly since the water switch. As the state slouched into damage-control mode, details emerged of an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that had also resulted in 12 deaths.

Any sense of vindication at these findings was short-lived: Most of us knew we were in a race against time and inertia to secure guarantees of remediation and accountability before the media spotlight moved on to the next story. Plus, proof that there was lead in the water only confirmed that our anxieties had been justified. My wife and I had been drinking Flint water for months. My daughter had just started kindergarten at a school that tested high for lead levels. Friends and family had been treated at the hospital found to be at the epicenter of the Legionnaires' outbreak. Most of us felt guilty, and we also felt outrage because we knew we had been lied to about our own health and that of our children.

The whole crisis seemed to reach a crescendo in January when Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, then Gov. Snyder, and finally President Obama made cascading “state of emergency” declarations for Flint.

Politicians visited. The media showered Flint with attention. And still, tens of thousands of pipes haven’t been replaced.

Since then ... well, nothing has happened.

I should qualify “nothing.” In the past year, Flint has been the focus of national attention, as every major news outlet came to the city to cover the human-made environmental catastrophe. Celebrities from Cher to Russell Simmons dropped in or made goodwill donations of plastic bottles. Hillary Clinton visited. Bernie Sanders visited. It took a while, but even Donald Trump made the pilgrimage to Flint to talk about our water crisis. We hosted a prickly debate between the two Democratic contenders, and later, Obama followed up with a visit of his own.

The Michigan National Guard briefly made rounds of the city, dropping off tiny plastic bottles of water and filters, but that didn't last for long. After a few weeks, the Guard and its escorts were replaced by nine “point of distribution sites” where Flint residents made ritual trips to stock up on cases of 16.9-ounce bottles of water. This last Thanksgiving, one grim local joke involved residents taking pictures of the dozens of such bottles it took to cook a turkey.

We took selfies with the National Guard and pictures of the bright yellow billboards that sprang up around town, warning in English and Spanish that “Boiling YOUR water DOES NOT REMOVE LEAD,” but it all felt hollow, because what we really wanted was clean water, new pipes, and guarantees that lead-poisoned Flintstones would receive adequate medical treatment.

Donald Trump visited Flint in September.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The media coverage happened.

What hasn't happened is a large-scale project to replace the corroded pipes.

According to the most recent estimates, 30,000 of Flint's corroded pipes need to be fixed. To date, only 600 have been replaced. After a year in the media spotlight, our pipes have been replaced at a rate of fewer than two per day. One can understand, perhaps, why many of us doubt that the remaining 29,400 will ever be replaced, and why we would swap bleak jokes with the construction workers tasked with replacing our more or less okay natural gas lines.

And lest you mistake this for a story of an intrinsically governmental malevolence, consider that Nestle affiliates draw hundreds of millions of gallons of Michigan groundwater, essentially free of charge, while Snyder's then–chief of staff suggested the state purchase back that same water to deliver to Flint. Meanwhile, more affluent cities like Troy have had no difficulty supplying their residents with safe drinking water, and Lansing, the state capital, just completed a 12-year plan to replace all of the lead service lines in its system.

This isn't a story of public or private sector incompetence. This is a story about the injustice that can occur anywhere when vulnerable communities are stripped of the little leverage they have. In the case of Flint, already a poor community struggling with unemployment and disinvestment, we were also stripped of our votes for local government. Why is anyone surprised that catastrophe followed? How do I teach my daughters about the importance of democracy and voting when they know that the state can take away their local vote on a whim and that the officials charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act wrote that Flintstones were more expendable than their neighbors outside city limits?

For that matter, how do any of us ever decide to trust our tap water again? Lead in drinking water is invisible. So are Legionella and total trihalomethanes and most of the other contaminants found in Flint water. It's hard to picture myself filling a mug under the tap and taking a big gulp. Would you?

A glimmer of hope: the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act

Now there may finally be a glimmer of hope for the Flint water crisis. On December 8, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act passed Congress with $170 million earmarked for Flint. Most of these funds are dedicated to replacing lead service lines and upgrading the city's water infrastructure and to providing medical care and education for those afflicted with lead poisoning. The bill also includes new regulations, including a requirement that the EPA notify residents of lead contamination within 24 hours if state authorities fail to do so. This is good and necessary news, and unlike other times our leaders have vowed to “fix this,” this new law looks like the real deal.

But there are still plenty of skeptics today, and they have a good point: We've been burned before. Some say the repairs will never happen, pointing out that in a city as stricken as Flint, the cost of repairs exceeds the value of many houses. They point to promises unfulfilled: federal funds earmarked for the demolition of abandoned houses redirected into the subsidy of private sector projects, the ongoing financial turmoil of the beleaguered Flint schools, and the continuing interference of the state in Flint's local governance.

Indeed, even as the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act passes, the state of Michigan continues to contest a federal court order to deliver bottled water door to door. The plaintiff's request makes sense when you've seen homebound seniors struggle to take two buses to a point-of-distribution site and then haul 40 or 50 pounds’ worth of little bottles all the way back home.

Even as the state's attorney general periodically indicts municipal and state staff for their roles in the crisis, the governor and his inner circle seem impervious to action, no matter how damning the evidence against them. Today's indictment of two former emergency managers is cathartic, but it’s hardly comforting when the system that empowered these individuals remains in place.

Similarly, last week Congress signaled the conclusion of its inquiry into the water crisis, despite the fact that Snyder's administration is charged with not cooperating with panelists or turning over requested documentation.

Perhaps most troubling of all, the emergency manager law has survived the Flint water crisis. If the poisoning of 100,000 people is not sufficient to prove the practical inadequacies and moral bankruptcy of a law that at one point deprived more than half of Michigan's African Americans of their own local leadership, then what more could it possibly take?

None of this even begins to tackle the bedrock difficulties faced by cities like Flint: that the legacies of corporate appeasement and built-in discrimination have created an environment not where a single crisis can take root, but where multiple crises are compounded. Where a state cuts its financial support for struggling cities while simultaneously appointing emergency managers with the power to sell off services and liquidate assets. Where a city is so choked of revenue that it was forced to cut its police force by almost 60 percent in a single decade, even as it ranks as one of the most violent cities in the nation for year after year. Where the water crisis hits the same schools where, due to budget cuts, 60 students are packed into a single classroom and the aging, overstressed boilers break down in the middle of a Michigan winter.

The crisis in Flint is much bigger than water

The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act ought to be the mere beginning of reparation for and reappraisal of Flint, and yet most of us will breathe a sigh of relief simply to see a few corroded pipes ripped out of the ground and replaced.

Understand: Most Flintstones weren't particularly surprised when the Flint water crisis happened. We were surprised that this time, for a moment, the rest of the nation actually noticed. This puts us in company with cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Detroit, where, thanks to the emergence of a photogenic calamity, America has finally gotten a glimpse of ugly truths that residents have known for generations.

Flint isn't suffering through a water crisis. Flint is fighting through a crisis of injustice. The water crisis is simply its most visible symptom.

Who knows? Maybe the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act will be a huge success. Maybe our pipes will be replaced and our poisoned children will get the medical care they need. Maybe our state and federal lawmakers will even learn a thing or two about the real-world manifestation of environmental injustice. It would certainly be nice if they did.

But until our fellow Michiganders and Americans stand up together and denounce the policies of entrenched poverty and systemic racism, Flint will continue to struggle.

Flint is still here.

Many of us are staying, by choice or necessity.

We'll keep reminding you that we're here, for as long as it takes.

At least I know that in the meantime, my natural gas–powered water heater will continue to heat my undrinkable water.

Connor Coyne is a writer. He has written two novels, Shattering Glass and Hungry Rats, as well as Atlas, a collection of short stories. All are inspired by the past, present, and future of Flint, Michigan. His website is ConnorCoyne.com, and he can be found on Facebook and Twitter @connorcoyne. He lives in Flint with his wife, two daughters, and two adopted rabbits.


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