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Flint Residents’ Choice: ‘Pay for Your Poison’ or Have Water Shut Off

Auditi Guha

Flint residents already pay the highest water rates in the country. Residents paid $864.32 yearly for 60,000 gallons of water in 2015, almost three times the national average.

Mary Huddleston walked into Flint City Hall on Friday to dispute a water bill that had jumped from $257 to $1,070 in a month.

“I panicked because I can’t pay this,” said the 76-year-old widow and longtime Flint, Michigan, resident, one of many who has struggled since dangerous levels of lead were first found in the city’s drinking water almost three years ago.

Huddleston told Rewire she lives alone, is too old to move out of her home, and that her children and grandchildren won’t visit because of the dirty water. She takes a quick shower once a week and washes her clothes once a month. The rest of the time she depends on the bottled water the city has provided.

“I don’t feel very good about it,” she said. “And now I have this bill.”

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City officials told Huddleston she was billed estimated amounts because they don’t have enough employees to do meter readings. A $914 jump is too much for a retired person, she said.

“I just think they are taking advantage of the elderly on top of everything else,” Huddleston told activists who were coincidentally rallying in the lobby that afternoon for clean water.

“Whose water? Our water,” chanted a group calling for the water shutoffs to end.

Nayyirah Shariff, director of the grassroots organization Flint Rising, laid out demands for the government: Refund residents for what they have paid for toxic water since 2014; replace the infrastructure from the water treatment plant to people’s taps; and provide families with health care and support services for the damage done.

Flint Rising on Friday held a community meeting in the public library kicking off a campaign to bill Republican Gov. Rick Snyder for all costs associated with the man-made water crisis, from medication to transportation. Activists handed out empty water bottles and “You owe me” notepaper. “Tell Snyder what he owes you,” Shariff said.

Fed up with the lack of solutions, residents last week filed a class action lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), demanding $722 million in damages.

In 2016, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said replacing lead service lines could cost as much as $1.5 billion. Flint officials expect it could take up to three years to replace pipes for 18,000 to 28,000 homes. 

But all of this comes too late for the Murphy family that attended the rally.

“My husband is very sick from the poisoned water,” Christina Murphy told Rewire. “We’ve been struggling to make ends meet.”

Adam Murphy has welts on his face and has been sick and without a job for a year. They have five children. Ten-month-old Declan was born with lead in his blood. Christina Murphy is pretty sure she’s sick, but until she stops breastfeeding in about two months, she won’t seek treatment. Her water bill in January was $136.48, a sum she said she can hardly afford. 

The water crisis in Flint has resulted in children suffering from lead poisoning and 12 people dead from Legionnaires’ disease, according to reporting from the New York Times.

Snyder, citing a recent report announcing falling lead levels, notified residents in a February 7 letter that the state will stop paying for the city’s drinking water and end water credits for customers beginning March 1. The state will cease the $1.2 million monthly credit for the water Flint receives from the Great Lakes Water Authority, according to the Detroit News, meaning residents will see a hike in their already steep water bills, activists warned.

Flint residents already pay the highest water rates in the country, according to CNN. Residents paid $864.32 yearly for 60,000 gallons of water in 2015, almost three times the national average.

While some pipes have been replaced in the city, the problem is multifold, residents told Rewire. Tap water filters are not particularly effective, the city won’t replace the pipes that are on their property, no one knows how many pipes need replacing, and no one is sure if bottled water is safe given that it is even less regulated than tap water.

Christina Murphy called the recent report announcing falling lead levels in Flint’s water “a joke” as the water is still not safe to drink because of corroded pipes across Flint.

Shariff said she is “not at all sure” the tests were in compliance with the lead and copper rule for drinking water requirements.

“If someone is unable to pay their water bill and they don’t have an active water account with the Fast Start program, they won’t get their pipes changed. That’s regardless of what their test results were and that is dangerous for residents,” she said.

Fast Start, launched last fall by Weaver, is a city pipe removal program that has struggled due to a lack of accurate records about lead pipe locations and a complex bidding process for replacing them, according to the Detroit News.

Fliers in the lobby of City Hall offer assistance to those having trouble paying water bills, but residents said there isn’t a fixed payment plan or exemption available, that some of them have been refused, and that it depends on who you get to help you in the city, which has been in a state of receivership since the water emergency began.

Barbie Biggs, a Flint resident who spoke at the rally, said one woman died from dehydration in her neighborhood. For that, she said, everyone in the city and state should be ashamed.

“Payment is a big deal. People can’t take care of their family, kids, and they can’t afford this water,” Biggs said. “Gov. Snyder should be held accountable.”

Meanwhile, the cost of upgrading Flint’s water plant has climbed to $108 million, the Detroit Free Press reported. Snyder’s 2018 budget proposal includes $48 million, an addition to $234 million appropriated to address the city’s water crisis, MLive reported.

Some said they want to stop paying these bills, but that’s a tough option for many.

All the issues they are facing are “caused by the very thing I had to just go pay for and that’s mind blowing,” said Christina Murphy. “We want to refuse to pay, but we have five kids and they are threatening to take liens on houses if we don’t pay. So it’s either pay for your poison or we are going to kick you on the street.”

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