Flint has a pulse- my visit to Flint two years after ‘the switch’

Flint has a pulse, but it’s going to take a while to truly come alive

Reporting back from Flint, April 2016

By Erin Huber

welcome flint water plant
Entrance to the Flint municipal water plant.

On many streets in Flint, you feel the Midwest, ex-car manufacturing town poverty in your face. It seems for every ten homes with boarded up windows, fallen roofs, smashed windows or wide open doors, graffiti and debris, one family actually lived in the eleventh home next door. The place seems to be stuck in time in some ways; it paused then plummeted when the car market, housing market and economies crashed. It was and is a vulnerable place.

flint water tower
A water tower in Flint stands over the city in a large brownfield.

In Flint:

  1. Close to 80,000 jobs were lost in recent years, while just 99,002 people currently live in the city. There were 180,000 people in Flint a few years ago. It’s the first time Flint has dropped below 100,000 since the 1920s.
  2. The unemployment rate has reached 26.5% (2009) and currently sits at 9%, double the national average.
  3. People became stuck in poverty living in an economy made up of WIC, food assistance, liquor stores, cash-for-gold outfits, and deserted brownfields- for miles. The crime rate is 50% higher than the national average.
  4. You see the harsh food deserts and (very nice) people who just don’t look healthy, and seemingly have no way out of this mess.
  5. You can buy or sell a house in Flint for an average of $26,700 – one fifth of the average sale price in Michigan.
  6. It’s estimated that about 50% of Flint has some type of lead pipe and it’s unknown – at this point – what material is in each individual service and main pipe. Finding out would require removing every single house, service, and main line pipe in the city, which is neither feasible nor practical.

In the past 10 years, over half of the schools in Flint have closed and are now covered in boards, graffiti and trash- especially bottled water remains. Kids have a few playgrounds, but they are very vacant, just like the neighborhoods seem. It’s quiet in Flint, but there is a fight here, a pulse… and just like Cleveland, the pulse is deep in the people and harder to hear. The people are tired.

What happened in Flint and why I went

As if these wonderful Flintonians didn’t have enough stress from job loss, school closings, decrepit neighborhoods and in some parts, shootings or bodies turning up in the Flint River (like on 4/1/2016 when I was there), in April 2014- two years ago- their water became unsafe. The source was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River and the new city manager(s) made this change in order to save the stressed town money. This switch led to lead– lead in the service pipes and interior plumbing began to break free and enter homes because the lack of corrosion control measures and makeup of the river’s water were not balanced by management.

Water is why I went to Flint- but I want to be very clear here-

Flint is broken and the problem is much bigger than water.

We will focus on water for the sake of what our organization does, but being there, you find your heart aches for these people in so many other ways. The good news- people are trying their best to help themselves and their neighbors. Flint will heal. As for the water, it will heal too. It will take time to heal- and in this case money- and lots of it. There is no quick fix and the problem is bigger than you or I. This is a problem left to us from half a century ago or more, and we have to fix it because it won’t be going away on its own.

wild midwest house
One of the many abandoned homes in Flint.

I had the pleasure of shadowing the US EPA Emergency Response, Water Quality Task Force folks there for a few days. I witnessed home water testing, toured Flint, went to a community Recovery Group meeting, filter installations and education and dropped off some filter cartridges for distribution from a few wonderful DLDT supporters in Cleveland.

When the water was switched on residents to save money, the source became the Flint River instead of Lake Huron. This river is ‘different’ water than Lake Huron and was not treated differently when switched. Water plants treat the water you and I drink in different ways. Chorine helps prevent bacteria (and bacterial diseases like legionaries), the pH is checked, fluoride is added (to help reduce cavities) and other treatment is supposed to ensure water is safe for drinking and use by the public. These levels of chemical treatment have to specifically treat the water coming in and treatment needs heavy and thoughtful monitoring. In Flint, when city mangers took over the water supply, switched it and didn’t properly treat it, that’s when the corrosive protection layer –that has built up over time in the service lines and pipes- began to breakdown and corrode releasing the lead that had been there all along, but wasn’t a problem prior because the corrosive protection was in place.

To the people of Flint, all of this happened almost, in an instant. In April 2014 when the water was switched, people knew something wasn’t right, management acknowledged the water wasn’t safe internally months later, but did nothing. The people had to yell and scream to the media to get heard. Now, two years later the water quality (other than lead) has reached its pre April 2014 state, which is good and thanks to US EPA and the people who raised attention about the problem. In 2014-2015, it was said that the water plant was understaffed, emergency managers kept changing and nothing was in order as it should be.  For this, Flint paid a large price.

A year and a half later- There is hope

After attending a community meeting in Flint, I was shocked at the progress I saw. The media has largely gone, and now the people are coming alive. Over 120 organizations in Flint and Michigan are working together to communicate with the community, ensure people know how to keep their families safe, organize streamlined systems for food/water/filter distribution and provide ways – like participating in this group- for the community to get active. The Red Cross, United Way, churches, the Board of Heath, US EPA, Flint community members and many grass roots groups in Flint are extremely organized and have bi-weekly meetings to address community concerns and update each other on progress so they can work collaboratively and effectively. The people are strong here, and they are getting stronger.

US EPA Emergency Response: Water Quality Task Force

I need to say- these people are amazing! The majority of EPA folks have left their own families to help get Flint back on track since April 2015. A friend, Mark Durno, charging this mission, has done an amazing job leading thoughtful, thorough mission to help Flint in the short, mid and long-term (long-term plans will be sorted out as the mid-term plans set in).  US EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have completed over 20,000 in home water quality tests (pictured), supported the State of Michigan and United Way to provide information for it’s free hotline, meets with the governor weekly to discuss progress, participates in a leadership role on the Recovery Group which is made up of 120 local participating organizations, designed and continues to design and distribute information that easy to understand to the public, assisted the State effort to install filters in 99% of the affected homes (pictured) while instructing people on how to use and maintain the filters, has test pipes set up in the vacant water plant to study Flint’s pipes (pictured) and is doing as much as possible within their federal orders to sensitize the community on what’s happening on a frequent basis.

Here’s what they found (in my words):

  • Lead pipes use in the water systems (and created maps of where these lead materials do and do not exist, some will remain unknown)
  • Different materials were used over time in main lines, curb boxes, lines to homes and in homes (cheaper metals were used in war times, like galvanized and other alloys)
  • There are 5000 HUD homes in Flint (HUD could potentially replace those pipes eventually with federal funding)
  • Education on trusting filters and why is the key stepping stone to pass over at this mid-term time; bottled water is not sustainable in the mid or long-term
  • Long-term planning is not in this mission, but rather in the hands of the state and city; filters are the only real, tangible mid-term solution and need to be trusted
  • Lead will not be gone from this community for a long time (it took DC 12 years and Lansing 10 years to get it under control)
  • If people aren’t flushing and using their water, the chance for build up of metals is higher, especially in hot water tanks; US EPA is now monitoring water tanks to make sure they will not cause more issues
  • The big lesson here is in corrosion control consequences and stagnation of water in lines (from people not using it)
  • The stress level of the community is very high

lead water pipes

Some additional facts:

  • The city and state are responsible for lead lines, not EPA
  • The people of Flint are getting credit for past water use (and only paying for their sewer bill)
  • The US EPA has 100 homes they are testing regularly spread over the city 45 of which will be monitored very long-term
  • US EPA has a test rig of real pipes pulled from Flint in the water plant that’s currently not in use
  • The water plant should be back online, using Lake Huron Water, on US EPA has helped build the water plant team with KWA (the new water authority that will take over in the next 6-12 months)
  • The state is doing pilot replacement lines, but has no money for the system

How do you fix a broken system

This is where I get to the ‘what you can do’ part.  But first, what I think can be done on a larger scale nationally.

  • Strengthen the lead/copper rule
  • Fund better outreach around lead to increase knowledge to at risk communities
  • Have better communication around lead issues nationally
  • Educate policy makers on gaps in the law and funding for enforcement of the law that exist

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Write to your politicians. Write a letter, an email, Tweet a Tweet.  Speak up-with FACTS– make politicians talk about infrastructure. We can all help heal Flint, prevent future Flint’s and minimize the potential of Flint-like crisis happening if we support leaders who are not only reactionary. There will be more lead, there will be more mismanagement of water systems, but hopefully less emergencies and more leaders asking questions, holding the right people accountable which means less crisis. We can all take action now- we don’t have to wait for this to happen elsewhere.
  2. Bottled water will not solve Flint’s problem. However, filter cartridge replacements will help in the now and mid-term and the right politics, leaders and investment will help in the long-term. The US EPA and partners have been working on the mid-term needs of getting the water system back to it’s protected and acceptable state before the switch in 2014. What they are doing is working. But, even an investment of funds today for the replacement of water main lines, then service lines, and THEN… individual homes- that will take years and may never happen all the way to the home. It’s likely filters will be needed for a very long time, but no more bottled water can fit in this town. Recycling is under 25% and the waste is rising. It’s not sustainable for the people or the planet. Secondly, it’s not working for people, without transport, in the long-term, to collect case of water to store in sometimes-unsafe conditions at home.
  3. One last thing that Flint needs is trust. The community needs to trust the filters and process of improvement. I think about DLDT’s work in Africa and how colonization led to distrust of whites in many places. In Flint, people were lied to and told the water was fine, when in fact, city and state officials knew it wasn’t fine. In my opinion, this is horrifying, and I can understand why people don’t trust all of the people feeding them different messaging now telling them to drink from the filters attached to their taps. The fact is, many of the 99% of homes who got filters and can pick up free cartridges don’t trust it completely yet. This is going to take time, but slowly, the churches, the local community leaders and individuals are building relationships through regular community meetings and getting educated on the facts. We can help build this trust by listening, having compassion and looking forward after admitting the huge mistakes that were made. The filters work and the comprehensive raw data and summary can be viewed on the US EPA- Flint website come mid-April. All involved need to be patient in the process of regaining trust of the people and the people need to trust that they are in better care now with the tools and information they need to keep their families healthy.
water testing results
The results of a water test is a common site at restaurants in Flint. Every public dining venue must print and post lead test results for the public.

What’s being offered to people in Flint

Here are just a few things I witnessed happening:

  • A $33,000,000 fund to pay for water and sewer bills until each families ‘share’ runs out
  • An effective state run (managed by the United Way) call line (211) for anyone to call anytime with health, food, water related questions and issues. Water tested will be completed at no charge and reports are given to the resident
  • All restaurants must post their leads results or filtration methods in their establishment
  • Anyone who can verbally give a zip code and first name can get filter cartridge replacements and cases of bottled water at no cost for an indefinite period of time
  • Nutrition classes and guides to help parents feed their children foods that keep lead form being absorbed in the body
  • Plenty- mountains of- materials, videos and support groups to help people understand the problems, solutions and plans for water and the health
  • Organized hubs for distribution of water/filter cartridges (fire stations, churches and other locations)
  • Open community meetings for people to learn, be heard or participate in the solution and healing process
  • Mental health support for stress and anxiety caused by this crisis
  • Care for children affected by lead poisoning (which will never go away)
  • Caring and qualified teams of scientists and field workers from US EPA testing for lead, PH, chlorine (to make sure no bacteria are present in homes), water heaters, and digging up sample lines to test at the water treatment plant (which I was also able to visit)
  • Free recycling containers for bottled water with bi-weekly pickup
  • Free cartridge recycling at various locations
  • The US EPA will come to events and schools, when invited, to explain everything that’s currently happening and they have regular representation at meetings that will allow that information to spread through local networks
  • And, much more from the 120 organizations involved in this recovery effort

Thanks for caring about Flint. If Flint feels far away, bring it home, to your family. Write your own politicians, in your city, about the importance of investing in water/sewer infrastructure, get your water tested and buy appropriate filters when necessary to make your water the way you want it. Take the time to learn about water in your city. Tour the water plant, the sewer plant and learn more about the science of water and sanitation. And lastly, please get the facts about crisis like these from reputable sources; organizations in the field, such as US EPA who are directly in touch with these critical issues, have scientists, specialists, and professional trained people to work in emergency response. We need to move forward, with the facts, and be proactive about our infrastructure needs. Our community and our families are worth it.

water distribution alert
A sign alerts Flint residents that a water distribution site is located ahead.

Resources:

http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2013/05/neighborhoods_around_closed_fl.html

http://www.homefacts.com/unemployment/Michigan/Genesee-County/Flint.html

http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2014/05/flints_population_falls_below.html

Flint Water Advisory Task Force Report (116 page PDF) US EPA

Operational Evaluation Report: City of Flint (40 page PDF)

(based on samples from May 2015, posted August 27th, 2015)

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