[UPDATE 12/20/16 – Four more officials will be charged in the Flint Water Crisis criminal investigation, Michigan’s attorney general announced today via NPR. Stay tuned for more information.]
With the presidential election and police violence taking up much of the news cycle this year, many other items that were focused on earlier have taken a back seat, which risks being forgotten completely. But the Flint Water Crisis probably one of the biggest issues of the year hasn’t gone away for the people who are affected by it, so it’s time to update where things are.
Its been 419 days and there’s no end in sight to the crisis. Since city officials in the heavily Black populated Flint, Michigan announced that its lead contaminated tap water was unsafe to drink for residents, officials have been trying — and failing — to find a resolution. E-mails dating back to 2012 show Flint officials decided they would switch their water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to its own pipeline connecting to the Karegnondi Water Authority, which they did in 2014. In January 2016, over a year and a half after switching to the Flint river source, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Genesee County. Less than two weeks later, President Barack Obama declared the situation a state of emergency, prompting federal support for the embattled city. Though filters and bottled water have been distributed, city and state officials say they cannot gauge a timeline for the end of the crisis. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Governor Snyder said “he didn’t want to speculate about when the city might be given an all-clear to drink unfiltered water.”
Recently, a federal judge ordered government officials within the state of Michigan to deliver bottled water to families still in need of water in Flint. Per U.S. District Judge David Lawson’s court order, city and state reps are required to deliver at least four cases of water per resident every week, unless the residence has working water filters or decline the services. Michigan plans to appeal the court’s ruling. Water filters, cartridges, and bottled water have been available for Flint residents since January at select locations throughout Genesee County. But locals have still had difficulties obtaining enough water for their household and transporting it. Government announcements listed 211 as the number for residents to call if they needed transportation to a water pick up location.
The situation has become a legal mess that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is still squarely in the middle of. Several lawsuits have been filed against state and city government officials, including Governor Snyder, in regards to their negligence in the crisis. A Federal lawsuit against Snyder and other Michigan officials was filed in November 2015 and remains pending. The lawsuit alleges that the government’s decision to switch to the Flint River water has resulted in members of the families suffering skin lesions, hair loss, convulsions, autoimmune disorders, hypertension and depression. Each of the families are requesting lifetime medical monitoring for the children effected by the contaminated water, damages, and a private overseer of future city water operations.
A team of lawyers from across the state of Michigan have also filed two separate class-action lawsuits. One lawsuit is aimed at stopping city officials from charging residents for past and future water deemed undrinkable on water bills. The second lawsuit seeks to hold the city and state financially responsible for the water crisis. It states that officials from the Department of Health and Human Services had reports showing the spike of lead in infant’s blood levels. The lawsuit claims the Dept. held onto this information for more than 10 months, and could have prevented further damage by sharing the data. A handful of officials, including Flint’s emergency manager, regional EPA director, and several Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees have either resigned, been fired or charged for their roles in the crisis. Governor Snyder has apologized.
Filters have been used as one of the few safe solutions, but not everyone can use them. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, FEMA began donating more than 50,000 filters and over 243,000 filter replacement cartridges to the State of Michigan in January. By June, the EPA completed their testing of water filters in Flint and determined the filters “effectively remove lead or reduce it to levels below EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion.” The filters decreased the need for infants, pregnant and nursing women to drink bottled water. Federal officials urged Flint residents to install filters on faucets they use for daily needs such as drinking, cooking, and showering, and to replace the cartridges regularly.
However, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said some homes cannot be fitted with filters. Environmental organizations such as Clean Water Action have not been able to place a timeline on when the city will be able to safely drink tap water without a filter. An opinion poll, conducted by Target Insyght/MIRS News in May found that 70% of Flint residents polled don’t trust the Government’s promises that filtered water is safe to drink. The same poll, which spoke to 400 of the nearly 100,000 Flint residents, also showed 55% of residents are using both filters and bottled water.
Some are being held criminally accountable. This summer, six city and state administrators were charged for their roles in the crisis. The highest ranking official charged was Liane Shekter-Smith, the former chief of Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). Shekter faces one count of misconduct in office and an additional charge for willful neglect of duty. Two of her employees: water quality analyst Adam Rosenthal and community drinking water unit specialist Patrick Cook manipulated reports and misled the EPA with false information. Two separate MDEQ officials: Stephen Busch, district water supervisor, and Mike Prysby, a district water engineer, face six charges ranging from misconduct to tampering with evidence. Former Flint laboratory and water quality supervisor Mike Glasgow faces two charges. MLive reports Michigan has spent over $5 million to represent Governor Snyder and the state officials. However, State Attorney General Bill Schuette told CNN that the charges [against the six administrators] “are only the beginning” of his investigation.
The long-term effects of lead poisoning on Flint is still not known. Between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to the lead-infused water, according to the United Way of Genesee County. Drinking the toxic metal can have lifelong effects both physically and mentally on the youth, especially newborns. Increased lead levels in blood can also cause mental retardation and the damages are often irreversible. Between June 2014 and November 2015, 87 cases of Legionella bacteria were confirmed in Genesee County, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. Of the 87 cases reported, ten people have died from Legionnaires’ disease. Exposure to high lead levels can be fatal. Flint residents have reported hair loss, nausea, diarrhea, and skin lesions.
Blood levels with high lead count can go away if the exposure is decreased; however researchers have not yet determined specific consequences per levels. Chelation therapy is one of the most common treatments for severe cases of lead poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that at least 4 million households (including those in Flint) have children being exposed to high levels of lead.