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Flint’s Dirty Drinking Water Conundrum

If you’ve seen Michael Moore’s 1989 film Roger & Me, you know the outlines of the story of Flint, Michigan. It’s a city that was devastated by the decline of the American automobile industry, and it never really recovered. Twenty-six years on, things have only gotten worse.

In the past few years, several news outlets have declared Flint “America’s Most Dangerous City” by virtue of its extremely high murder rate: there were 64.9 murders per 100,000 people in 2012. The following year, Flint’s population dropped below the 100,000 mark necessary to keep it in the running, so it no longer lays claim to that unfortunate title.

But now it has a new distinction to be ashamed of. According to a memo from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (PDF), Flint has been in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act as of the fourth quarter of 2014, due to excessive levels of trihalomethane (a byproduct of chlorination) in the city’s drinking water.

To save money, the City of Flint recently stopped procuring its water from Detroit’s Lake Huron-sourced supply—water that was cleaner, and so required less chlorine to kill any bacteria in it.[*] The local Karegnondi Water Authority, of which Flint is a member, is scheduled to complete a pipeline to Lake Huron, enabling Flint residents to have access to cleaner water by 2016. But in the meantime, the city now gets its water from the notoriously dirty Flint River. While City Hall still maintains the new water is safe, it was required to mail a notice to residents stating that the elderly, infants, and anyone with a severely compromised immune system should seek medical advice regarding the water. According to the notice, the water could increase the risk of cancer if ingested for many years.

City of Flint public information officer Jason Lorenz said that he isn’t concerned with the water, although he did seem a little concerned about an inquiring journalist. “What does a Portland journalist want with Flint, Michigan?” Lorenz asked suspiciously when I identified myself. He also reluctantly said that he himself drinks unfiltered Flint tap water, “three to four glasses a day.” City Hall uses the same water for its coffee, he said. Lorenz also assured me that he has never seen or smelled anything wrong with the water.

Lorenz’s statements are in stark contrast to those of Flint resident Cory Evans. Evans told me that the water literally “stinks,” and that he does not feel refreshed when he drinks water sourced from the Flint River the way he did with the Lake Huron Water. Even the local bar Evans works at isn’t taking any chances; he said it offers patrons bottled water instead.

But that’s not all: the water isn’t just suspiciously smelly, it’s expensive, too. As of last summer, Flint residents had to pay the highest water rates in Genesee County, with the average resident paying $140 a month for water and sewage services. Flint residents are so fired up about the prospect of having to wait until 2016 to get clean water again that they protested at Flint City Hall last Wednesday. Protesters held signs telling City Hall to “push the button,” a reference to city councilman Eric Mays’s recent assertion that “You can push the button any time and get water—good water [from Detroit].”

Unfortunately for Flint, the person with his finger on the button is Flint’s emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose. Flint is in the midst of a financial crisis, and a series of emergency managers appointed by Michigan governor Rick Snyder have been running things in Flint since 2011. One local I spoke with described the emergency manager’s presence as a “dictatorship,” in that the mayor and city council will be powerless placeholders until the financial crisis has passed.

Ambrose, who I could not reach for comment, seems committed to utilizing the local water supply, even though he has publicly admitted, “there’s nobody in this administration that’s happy with the quality of the water.”

Word of Flint residents’ dissatisfaction with their tainted water supply has started to reach beyond Michigan’s borders, too. Famous environmental advocate Erin Brockovich spoke out last week against the lack of action and assigned blame to every level of government in Flint. On Facebook, Brockovich wrote that the “United States will be equal to a third world country” until the Safe Drinking Water Act is actually enforced.

Although Michigan has the right to oversee implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA does have the authority to step in and levy fines on a case by case basis. But because Flint’s financial troubles are what led to the dirty-water predicament in the first place, fines would likely only make the situation worse. Flint residents probably don’t care who does what—so long as they can drink clean water again.


[*] Because of an editing error, this sentence previously suggested that Flint had obtained water directly from Lake Huron; in fact, it had obtained it from Detroit’s supply, which originally came from Lake Huron. The missing language has been restored.