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State Water Filters Prove Lacking in Flint, a City ‘Full of Forgotten People’

Auditi Guha

"We are almost like a third-world country in one of the most prosperous nations in the world."

Rebecca Abbott-Mccune was delivering water last week to residents in an apartment building in downtown Flint, Michigan. The resident was elderly, Black, blind, suspicious of strangers, and reluctant to let in volunteers in a city where the four-year water crisis has eroded public trust.

When they told her they were bringing her clean water, she began to cry because she wasn’t expecting it.

“When it takes a couple of packages of water to make you cry, I can’t even put that feeling into words,” Abbott-Mccune, 19, told Rewire.News.

A mechanical engineering sophomore at Kettering University, Abbott-Mccune said her experience in Flint was jarring. “That’s when I realized that Flint is full of forgotten people,” she said. “The apartment building I go to to deliver water, they don’t live there because that is where they lived before the water crisis turned into a whole event. They live there because they have been displaced from their home because of the water crisis. And the problem is far from over.”

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Despite protests and pleas, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) administration stopped delivering free bottled water to Flint in April, citing fiscal concerns, lowered lead levels, and the fact that every household in the city of about 100,000 has been supplied with water filters.

But not everyone in Flint has the filters attached correctly. Nor do they replace them as frequently as they should, volunteers told Rewire.News.

One of the volunteers visiting the blind resident noticed that the filter attached to her kitchen tap was blinking red. She had no idea because she couldn’t see and broke down when they told her. They replaced her cartridge, one of about 1,000 left over “from when the state was trying to fix the problem by telling people to put a filter on it,” Abbott-Mccune said. She’s not sure what the plan is for when they run out of filters.

Benjamin Pauli, social sciences professor at Kettering University, said he thinks the faucet filters solution was promoted largely for political reasons for the state to get out of the expense of providing residents with free bottled water.

“By some accounts, as many as half of the households in the city do not have the filters installed properly or are not using them properly. Furthermore, there are residents who, for physical reasons or otherwise, are not able to use the filters as they are made to be used,” Pauli said. “Residents are also aware that the filters are not certified to filter bacteria, and in fact dramatically increase the quantity of bacteria to which people are exposed. For this reason, the Genesee County Medical Society and Genesee County Health Department have recommended that children under 6, pregnant women, and immunocompromised residents continue to use bottled water.”

There are good reasons for residents to demand free bottled water as a matter of right, Pauli said. “The idea that they are doing so simply because they are distrustful, fearful, and traumatized is, in my view, condescending and offensive. Even more odious is the suggestion that in demanding bottled water residents are trying to milk the state for free stuff, which of course hints at long standing racist and classist stereotypes,” he said.

Nestlé recently announced it would continue to supply bottled water to residents until the end of the year. By then “we anticipate we will have donated approximately 3.2 million bottles of water to the City of Flint and served our communities more than 1,100 gallons of water from our (mobile) Ice Mountain Hydration Station,” said Jason Manshum, community relations manager at Nestlé Waters North America in an email.

“Ice Mountain has been supplying water all summer for children at summer camps around the city, as well as providing water at several local events,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said in a statement Thursday. Residents may visit city help centers where the water is being delivered on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Nestlé received a state permit to increase its intake of fresh groundwater four days before outgoing Governor Snyder announced closing the water distribution points of distribution in Flint in April. Snyder’s office did not respond to an emailed query. Despite public outrage and a legal challenge, Snyder recently defended the Nestlé permit, claiming the large withdrawals “won’t have adverse impacts,” and signed legislation in June to relax review of large quantity groundwater withdrawals claiming to streamline the process, MLive reported.

Nestlé claims it pays back to the community in many other ways, from helping Flint with water donations since October 2015, providing for water testing and water filters, and by funding several environmental and community projects. It employs 154 people and contributes nearly $1.6 million in state and local taxes in the neighboring Mecosta-Osceola County, Manshum said.

Public officials point to improved water test results and how much money has been spent or earmarked for Flint, arguments that mean little to residents who have repeatedly been lied to since the crisis unfolded, who still don’t feel they have reliable drinking water, have faced a high number of miscarriages, and have the highest water bills in the United States.

“Invoking system-wide averages as evidence that water quality is restored does little to assuage residents’ concerns about water quality at the household level,” Pauli said. “Even if you’ve had your water tested at the household level once, twice, or several times, those snapshots don’t necessarily tell you if the glass of water you’re drinking at this moment is safe. These kinds of considerations are very salient in Flint, for good reason.”

A Frontline investigation in July that counted 119 deaths from pneumonia in Flint found the state grossly undercounted the casualties of the water crisis. Official numbers state that 12 died and 90 fell sick after exposure to the waterborne Legionella bacteria when the city drew its water from the polluted Flint River in 2014 and 2015.

“The State of Michigan—the very entity that residents blame for poisoning them—is tasked with the management of this money, a fact which does not inspire confidence,” Pauli said. “On a day-to-day basis, residents can see that service lines are being replaced, but beyond that I don’t think the way the money is being spent is very tangible to people. I regularly encounter a pervasive sense that little to nothing has been done, that residents are still not being heard, and that the crisis is far from over.”

The city plans to replace all of about Flint’s 20,000 lead-tainted service lines by 2020 through the mayor’s FAST Start initiative; 6,896 homes have been completed to date. Of the 6,000 lines slated for replacement in 2018, the city has completed replacing lines at 668 homes, according to the mayor’s office.

Meanwhile, a July 19 report from the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) titled “Management Weaknesses Delayed Response to Flint Water Crisis” found that the EPA failed to intervene earlier and stop the water crisis in Flint. It called for the agency to strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs and revise the agency’s Lead and Copper Rule to improve response to drinking water contamination emergencies.

The EPA “fully supports” the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s consent order that points out 13 deficiencies for the city to resolve, deadlines for correcting each, and penalties of up to $500 a day for lapses, Governing magazine reported.

The U.S. Senate this month passed an amendment requiring the EPA to implement recommendations of the report and restore full funding to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that had been almost eliminated in President Trump’s 2019 budget request, according to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D-MI) office.

The agency has taken steps to ensure compliance and intends to adopt all the recommendations, an EPA spokesperson told Rewire.News. “EPA has provided the Office of the Inspector General with a detailed outline of its planned corrective actions and projected completion dates. The agency is actively engaging with states to improve communications and compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to safeguard human health.”

Where the Snyder administration has washed its hands of providing bottled water to Flint, activists, churches, and volunteers are stepping up in the embittered city that has long been one of the nation’s most dangerous and most poor.

The Greater Holy Temple Church of God in Christ has given out millions of water bottles since January 2016, all collected through private or company donations. Volunteers give out pallets of bottled water from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursdays. This week, cars started to pull up at 5:30 a.m., with lines stretching more than a mile, Sandra Jones, executive director of the temple’s outreach center, told Rewire.News.

“The line is so long and we never stop at 2 because it’s difficult for me turn people away,” she said.

The church was one of the state’s bottle distribution sites that closed in April, but people still come by and have to be turned away. Current donations provided by Nestlé and the United Way are only for people with cars. Many pick up for two families and they limit donations to eight cases for two or to six cases for one family per car. “I don’t want to look into your face and say we don’t have any, [but] we have to make the hardest decisions,” she said.

For those who don’t drive or are disabled, churches like Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and Salem Lutheran Church recruit volunteers like Abbott-Mccune to deliver pallets of water bottles door to door.

Originally from Blackstone, Virginia, she has volunteered with these churches for a month. She said she got involved with the Flint water crisis about two years ago when she interviewed Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards for a documentary. His team studied the crisis and explained how the failure of the state to add anti-corrosive agents to the water caused the spike in Legionella cases in Genessee County in 2015—a penny-pinching measure that was both predictable and preventable.

Abbott-Mccune hadn’t been to Michigan then. “Now that I am actually here, in the middle of all of it, I get to do something about it,” she said.“There’s also the look on people’s faces when you are delivering something that is necessary for life—that is just so fulfilling. If other people didn’t do that, then they wouldn’t have that water and they wouldn’t be able to have a healthy life.“

Life is still far from healthy for many Flint residents. Jones, 70, said she has broken out in a painful rash that “looks like chicken pox and it hurts.” Tests have not revealed the cause, but she’s certain it’s the water.

“I live the farthest from the water plant (in southwest Flint) and by the time the water comes to my home it’s no good (because) it has gone through vacant homes and vacant lots with not enough residents to flush it clean. It’s full of bacteria and chlorine,” Jones said.

City officials have never tested the water in her home, she said. Jones has filters on her shower head, bathroom, and kitchen taps.

“We are almost like a third-world country in one of the most prosperous nations in the world,” she said.

Many have blamed Gov. Snyder and his administration for causing the Flint crisis and several members of his administration are facing criminal charges or trials. They include Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services; former Emergency Manager Gerald Ambrose; former Department of Public Works Director Howard Croft; state health officials Nancy Peeler and Robert Scott; and four employees of the state Department of Environmental Quality, MLive reported.

A judge this month dropped Gov. Snyder, former Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant, and ex-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling from an ongoing class action lawsuit filed on behalf of residents. The judge also dismissed race, civil rights, and negligence claims, according to the Associated Press.

As Snyder completes his last term, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer has made clean drinking water one of her campaign issues. She also has a plan to to expedite lead pipe replacement statewide, install a water ombudsman to respond to drinking water complaints, and restore the bottled water distribution service in Flint.

“There’s no reason that the state that’s home to 21 percent of the earth’s fresh water should have a community full of people who can’t bathe their children or give them a glass of water at the dinner table,” she said in an email. “For too long, leaders like [GOP gubernatorial candidate] Bill Schuette have ignored the people of Flint. As Attorney General, Schuette signed off on the Flint water switch that put lead in our water and when problems came, he ignored 15 different complaints to his office over almost two years until the media exposed the scandal.”

Schuette’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Clean water is not listed as one of his campaign issues. However, he also rebuked Snyder for cutting off the bottled water supply in April, according to the Detroit Free Press.

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