By Connor Coyne
Photo by Brittany Greeson
The latest hit job upon the people of Flint by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) had all the subtlety of a piano falling 160 feet from the rotunda of the state capitol in Lansing.
On April 9, just one week after the MDEQ decided to allow Nestle — a multinational corporation with close ties to Gov. Snyder — to bottle 400 gallons of water per minute from the White Pine Springs well in the Great Lakes Basin for a nominal $200 per year, and just five days after the state finally restored local control to Flint after almost seven years under state receivership, the Snyder administration unceremoniously and without notifying the Flint mayor or city council announced its decision to cease supplying the people of Flint with bottled water, which came at a cost of $22,000 a day.
The water, supplied to citizens through four points of distribution (or PODs), had been one of the state’s belated but most critical responses to the Flint Water Crisis, allowing residents access to water not drawn from pipes corroded by months of exposure to acidic and under-treated Flint River water. The state’s decision provided for the PODs to remain open until their remaining supplies were exhausted, leading to a predictable run on the water, with lines of cars running for blocks. Less than two days after the announcement, all water supplies had been exhausted and the PODs were left desolate and quiet.
Why should the state continue to supply Flint residents with free water?
Well, have a seat, because this is messed up.
While the abruptness of the closures seemed almost intentionally timed to flout residents’ anxieties and humiliate local leaders, it’s worth considering the argument of the MDEQ for a moment, because it sounds superficially reasonable: “For nearly two years Flint’s water has been meeting the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). The water is now testing at 6 parts per billion (ppb) which is much lower than the federal LCR requirement of 15 ppb. Flint’s water is one of the most monitored and testing the same as similar cities across the state and country.”
Why, given all this, should the state continue to supply Flint residents with free water?
Well, have a seat, because this is messed up.
First, I should explain that the water is chiefly being monitored by the MDEQ, which is the same agency that approved the initial switchover to river water in April 2014 as well as the withholding of corrosion control treatments. Then, when the first evidence of lead poisoning started cropping up in mid-2015, the MDEQ told us to “relax” even while colluding with the city to cover up the spike by doctoring lab results. So when the MDEQ tells you that “the water is now testing at 6 parts per billion,” let me ask: Would you trust them with your health?
Second, it is probably relevant to note that while, yes, lead content has declined across the system, only about a third of the lead service lines the city is currently working to replace (originally recorded on 45,000 unsorted index cards) have been fixed since the crisis started four years ago. Meanwhile, after an initial decline, the lead content in some public schools went up as recently as February of this year. Consider that one of these samples at an elementary school came in at 279 parts per billion, almost 20 times the federal action level. Consider that young children are most susceptible to lead poisoning. Consider that the Center for Disease Control maintains that “no safe blood lead level in children has been identified” and that “lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body.” So when the MDEQ tells you that “Flint’s water has been meeting federal standards,” let me ask: Would you let your children drink that water?
Third, I should probably point out that lead was not the only issue with the water. In December 2014, the city reported elevated levels of Total Trihalomethanes, a suspected carcinogen, which was what prompted my family to stop drinking the water before the lead crisis broke. Or, much worse, in the midst of the lead crisis, 12 people died of a Legionnaires’ outbreak. While state officials were originally loathe to connect that fatal pneumonia outbreak to river water, it has now been conclusively linked to underchlorinated water that was an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. Knowing this, let me ask: How would you feel about exposing your elderly or immunocompromised family to Flint water?
Fourth, I should let you know that Flint’s tap water is some of the most expensive in the country. Residents who don’t pay for their undrinkable water face shutoffs and, in some cases, foreclosure. So as the state complains about the $22,000 per day to send us bottled water, let me ask: How would you feel about paying over a thousand dollars per year for water you couldn’t drink?
And finally, the state has been touting the “more than $350 million to Flint” in funds it has allocated in response to the Flint Water Crisis. This argument is a sleight-of-hand that masks where much of the money has been spent and for whom. A lot of this supposed largesse has fallen into the vast sink of “economic development” … for example, tens of millions alone went into the restoration of a single historic building, and while I admire the historic preservation and long belated attention to Flint’s ailing economy … it is simply dishonest to present this all as a response to the water crisis. In fact, the whole fiasco could have been avoided if the state hadn’t simply withheld the $55 million in revenue sharing it has owed Flint in recent decades, which forced Flint into receivership under cut-the-budget-past-the-bone Emergency Managers unaccountable to Flint residents.
Let me ask: If you lived in Flint, wouldn’t you think that bottled water is the very least the State of Michigan owes you and your families?
The State of Michigan should continue to provide free bottled water to every Flint resident until the last lead-solder pipe is replaced.
Instead, the state closed its PODs last week. It has done so without due notice or the opportunity for Flint residents or their leaders to appeal. It has done so without either fixing all of our pipes or repealing the horrendous law that took away our voice in critical local decisions, like our source of water. It has done so without regard for the well-being of our elders or our children.
But don’t worry: They’ll still commission some glossy ads telling tourists from Chicago and Toronto to come to Michigan because it is so very pure.
Flint knows better.
Banner photo: Fatima Evans, 38, loads bottled water into a car at the water distribution center off of Dort Highway in Flint on April 9, 2018, the day Gov. Rick Snyder announced the State of Michigan would cease providing free bottled water to Flint residents.
Connor Coyne is a writer who lives in Flint, Michigan.
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