At first, Tracy Collins didn’t notice anything wrong with the water. It looked clear and potable. But her grandchildren complained about how much it stank, and after a while, Collins began to smell it, too – a foul sulfur-like stench emanating from the tap.
That summer, Collins’ oldest granddaughter developed a rash that spread across the side of her neck. Unaware of the water contamination, Collins thought it stemmed from her granddaughter’s eczema even though she had never broken out so severely.
For nearly a year and a half, Collins and her family drank, cooked with and bathed in dangerously contaminated water. Collins now struggles each day to deal with uncertainty about the health of her grandchildren, whose exposure to lead could result in learning disorders, physical disabilities and higher tendencies toward violence later in life.
“It’s devastating for me to think that my grandchildren five to ten years from now could have something that happens to them,” she said in a phone interview.
In a city of nearly 100,000 people, 56 percent of whom are African-American, every single family in Flint, Mich., is now living with the results of a long chain of government inaction and mendaciousness.
On Wednesday, April 20, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced charges against three government officials: Mike Glasgow of the Flint Utilities Department, Stephen Busch of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), and Mike Prysby, also of MDEQ.
A Long Chain of Government Failures
A comprehensive report published last month by the Flint Water Advisory Task Force from Virginia Tech revealed that Schuette, Glasgow and Prysby all had clear knowledge of Flint’s water quality issues, and blatantly tampered with investigations to keep the issues from reaching public attention.
In fact, Busch warned Prysby as early as March 2013 that there were public health risks associated with switching the city’s water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the Flint River.
In April of 2014, Glasgow also admitted in an email to MDEQ that the Flint Water Treatment Plant (WTP) was not prepared to distribute water from the river. However, he approved the switch, and on July 1, 2014, city residents began drinking highly corrosive water from the river.
Within months, water quality flags were raised with the discovery of E. coli and a sharp increase in cases of Legionella, a bacterial infection that can prove deadly for elderly and immunocompromised patients. But only a day after General Motors stopped using the water due to risks of its being too corrosive for manufacturing operations, a request from the State Deputy Legal Counsel to return Flint to DWSD was disregarded for being cost-prohibitive.
By December, residents began to experience unprecedented hair loss and skin rashes.
“We engaged the state of Michigan, we traveled to Langston, met with the governor’s staff, chief of staff, and others, and pressed upon them on the need for the city of Flint to return to the Detroit water source,” said Pastor Alfred Harris, president of Concerned Pastors for Social Action and pastor of the Saints of God Church in Flint, where Collins is a congregant.
As pleas from Harris and other advocates were ignored, water coolers were being installed in state offices in Flint for state employees, as noted by the Virginia Tech report.
In February, after high lead levels were reported at the home of citizen LeeAnne Walters, Busch told EPA that Flint was properly treating the water. During a follow-up investigation in June, Glasgow emailed the rest of the Flint Utilities Department, cc’ing Prysby and Busch, to say that the 61 samples pending collection for EPA testing “will be below the AL [action level] for lead. As of now with 39 results, Flint’s 90th percentile is over the AL for lead.”
They were not alone in their obfuscations of the truth. According to the Virginia Tech report, several members of the MDEQ continued to insist on the potability of the water in emails to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) until September, when news broke confirming the research of pediatric doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha, which found alarming blood lead levels in children. Shortly after, MDHHS confirmed the crisis.
Distrust runs deep among Flint residents for all levels of government. Although charges have been pressed on Glasgow, Busch and Prysby, many residents feel it is not enough.
“Everybody failed,” said Harris. “When [the EPA and MDEQ] were informed of these symptoms, the people with rashes, hair loss, etcetera, that’s when they should’ve said, ‘We need to find out what’s wrong. We can’t risk this – it’s too important.’ But they were taking shortcuts.”
Understanding the Lead and Copper Rule
In 1991, the EPA established the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) to protect residents against the leaching of lead from corroded water distribution pipes into the water supply.
EPA’s website states: “The treatment technique for the rule requires systems to monitor drinking water at customer taps. If lead concentrations exceed an action level of 15 ppb […] in more than 10 percent of customer taps sampled, the system must undertake a number of additional actions to control corrosion [and] inform the public about steps they should take to protect their health.”
Despite the LCR, however, the EPA failed to enforce it in Flint. The Virginia Tech report stated that “with the exception of the strident e-mails and interim report by [Region 5 Regulations Manager Miguel] Del Toral, EPA refrained from elevating concerns or taking action.”
EPA’s Flint Task Force has added new language to the LCR to clarify procedures for monitoring water quality. Yet analyses of the events leading to the Flint crisis suggest flaws in the enforcement rather than substance of the LCR. Questions remain about whether these revisions will effectively prevent more crises from happening in the future.
Resilience in the Face of Uncertainty
The EPA has now recommended Flint residents live on bottled water indefinitely.
Collins’ household, which includes her five grandchildren and their mother, follows a strict regimen for rationing bottled water and limiting showers from the tap to two or three times a week.
“It’s very trying and troubling, really devastating to know you have to live like this,” Collins said.
Some days they use one and a half cases of water just to meet their minimum needs. Donations of bottled water are available, but Collins said she accepts them sparingly so that they can reach the people most in need.
Despite the enormous hardships, Collins demonstrates remarkable strength and grace.
“If you get all flustered and frustrated about it, it doesn’t help anything,” she said. “I am really upset about it, but I always feel like when you’re calm and direct about what’s affecting you, you have a better outcome.”
Collins finds solace in the fact that people in other cities are learning from Flint, and starting to check their water.
Karen Hao lives in San Francisco and works at a technology startup. She spends her free time blogging and took the EdX course Journalism for Social Change to dive into the world of environmental reporting. Find her on Twitter @_KarenHao.