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Looking back at the Flint water crisis, eight years on

The Flint Water tower.

Flint, Michigan has become synonymous with the water crisis that exposed thousands of residents to lead. Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

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On April 25, 2014, water from the Flint River began flowing into the pipes of Flint, Michigan. The date marks the start of the Flint water crisis.

The decision to change water sources was a fateful one. Previously, Flint purchased its water from Detroit. But Flint was struggling and found it could save money by constructing a pipeline to a local water authority.

In April 2014, however, the pipeline was not yet operational, so the city chose water from the Flint River as a temporary stand-in. But water in the Flint River has a high chloride content and was not immediately treated properly. As a result, it began to corrode the lead pipes that ran throughout the city. Testing and treatment of the water prior to the switch could have lessened the community impact.

“Any competent person should have seen this water will eat up iron and eat up lead,” Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards told the Detroit Free Press in 2015.

Lead pipes that connect residences to public water supplies aren’t uncommon in the United States. Though Congress banned the use of lead pipes in 1986, those already in use were allowed to remain. At least 12 million lead pipes carry drinking water to homes across the U.S., according to the Natural Resources Defense Council

In the months following April 2014, thousands of Flint residents — 54% of whom are Black or African American — would be exposed to lead-contaminated water, and many would go on to push for accountability and advocate for clean water access.

Failing the residents of Flint

The city’s choice to tap into a new source of water was precipitated by decades of economic decline. Flint was once home to the nation’s largest General Motors plant, but after the company opted to downsize in the ’80s, the local economy began to suffer.

Prior to 2014, the city was also placed under emergency management twice — where the state of Michigan intervened and oversaw Flint’s financial decisions — after financial emergencies were declared by the governors at the time. One of those financial decisions? Changing the city’s water source as a way to cut expenses. Two of the city’s state-appointed emergency managers have since been criminally charged in relation to the water crisis.

Less than a month after the water source was switched and the lead pipes began to corrode, Flint started to receive complaints about a change in the smell and taste of the water. It only went downhill from there.

After bacteria was found in the city’s water supply, officials issued a boil water advisory for residents. General Motors stopped using Flint water after chloride levels raised concerns about metal corrosion. And a city test lead test in one home, where the amount of lead was seven times higher than allowed by the EPA — though, for the record, no amount of exposure is considered safe — helped spotlight the city’s drinking water supply as nearing a crisis. 

Pictures of brown, lead-contaminated water began to circulate. Then-President Barrack Obama announced a federal state of emergency. Officials from Michigan and the EPA played the blame game while millions of water bottles flowed to the city.

All in all, nearly 100,000 city residents were exposed to lead through their drinking water — close to 9,000 of whom were children under the age 6. Such exposure can seriously impact a child’s health, damaging the brain and nervous system and delaying growth and development.

The residents of Flint fight back

A Cornell study published in January of this year found that up to a quarter of Flint children may have experienced elevated blood lead levels following the crisis. That’s roughly seven times the national average. The switch in water sources was also tied to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, which left a dozen people dead. 

Flint residents were understandably outraged. And they were vocal.

Residents attended town halls with bottles of the murky water. Mari Copeny — known as Little Miss Flint — penned a letter to President Obama discussing the crisis and eventually met with him. At 14, she is still an outspoken advocate for clean water access. City residents continue to pressure leaders on issues relating to equity and environmental racism and Flint has a reborn reputation for social justice.

A 2018 report by an internal Environmental Protection Agency watchdog found that lapses in oversight at the local, state and federal government levels worsened the crisis, failing to ensure Flint residents had access to potable water. In 2021, nine state officials — including Michigan’s former governor, Rick Snyder — were charged in crimes related to the city’s water contamination.

In addition to highlighting the government’s failure to protect the health of its citizens, the crisis also spotlighted racial inequities. A 2017 report by Michigan’s Civil Rights Commission found that systemic racism had a hand in how the crisis played out.

“It is abundantly clear that race played a major role in developing the policies and causing the events that turned Flint into a decaying and largely abandoned urban center, a place where a crisis like this one was all but inevitable,” the report reads.

The costs — and impacts — of the crisis

In November 2021, a federal judge approved a $626 million settlement to the victims of the crisis, most of which will go to children in the city.

And while Flint has become synonymous with its water crisis, lead pipes still serve between 15 million and 22 million Americans — and lead contamination of tap water remains a threat.

That fact is getting greater attention in Washington. President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill has $15 billion slated for replacing lead pipes across the U.S. Though it’s a large investment, it’s unlikely to be enough to replace all lead pipes in the country.

Full replacement of these pipes can cost thousands of dollars per service line — a prospect often complicated by the fact that these pipes often extend into privately owned property. Still, cost-benefit analyses have found that such investments would have returns greater than their costs.

Back in Flint, eight years after the start of the water crisis, clean water is flowing in the city’s pipes, many of which have been replaced. But the wounds it inflicted are evident.

Birth outcomes worsened, as did the physical and mental health of adults. These tolls disproportionately impacted Flint’s Black residents. And there’s still the question of trust. Some city residents continue to be suspicious of the water that comes out of their faucets, according to reporting by Click On Detroit.

“I just don’t trust it,” one resident said, who still uses bottled water for cooking and drinking. “I don’t believe it’s safe and I never will.”

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