Flint Michigan Water Crisis: Its Timeline and Latest Update
Humans can live 3 weeks without food, but only 3 days without water. Therefore, water is indeed important. But, what if your water was poison? This is exactly what happened in Flint, Michigan about three years ago. The city has a population of around 99,700 and located 70 miles north of Detroit.
According to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, among U.S. cities with at least 65,000 residents, Flint has the nation's highest poverty rate. An estimated 58% of the residents under age 18 live below the poverty line compared to a national average of 18% which ranks first in the childhood poverty base from Michigan's 2016 median household income data.
The trouble began about 3 years ago when the city decided to switch from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River but the new system wouldn’t be ready for two years. For the meantime, to save and cut costs they switched to the Flint River water, and that decision turned out to be a mistake.
Foul smells, bad tastes and discoloured water, that’s what came out of the tap in Flint, Michigan when residents’ drinking water was pulled from the river. When the residents noticed that the tap water looked and smelled strange, it was later found out to have dangerous level of lead. The worse thing was, the state knew about it and did nothing.
A high number of children had abnormal levels of lead in their blood. This even doubled after 18 months. Even though the water failed tests several times after the switch, the residents were not alerted. They informed only for about nine months later about the problem. Families have been suffering for months without clean water. They had to find alternative sources.
What caused the Flint Michigan water crisis? Follow the timeline of where it all started and know where the situation is at present.
April 16, 2013
Eager to save money, Flint’s city councils voted 7-1 to join the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) where a new pipeline project will deliver water from Lake Huron. This will end its contract with Detroit. State Treasurer, Andy Dillon, with the city council’s recommendation, authorizes Flint to make the water switch, where water begins drawing from the Flint River.
Emergency manager Ed Kurtz officially signed the agreement. This was projected to save the city with $19 million over eight years and has been agreed by the state. Effective April 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) will terminate its water service contract with Flint.
The water switch from Detroit’s system to Flint River is considered temporary while the city waits to connect to a new regional water system. The move was made as an economical measure for the struggling, majority-black city. The shift was delayed for days because workers had to complete the construction of a disinfectant system at a treatment plant.
Soon after the switch, residents began complaining about the smell, taste and appearance of the water, and raise health concerns like skin rashes, hair loss and concerns about bacteria and other problems.
It is the first time that the city aroused an advisory to its residents in the west side of Flint to boil their water. It announced that Fecal coliform bacterium has been detected in their water supply. The high amount of chlorine was raised in the water and cleaned the system.
The city issued another boil-the-water advisory for having another positive test result of F. coliform bacteria. The contamination of this kind of bacteria in the water is also a warning or sign of E. coli bacteria or other disease-causing microorganisms. The city officials announced that they would clean the pipes and add more chlorine to the water. After four days, the residents were told that drinking water from their tap was safe.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) issued a statement outlining the possible causes of water contamination through the governor’s conference paper. According to Stephen Busch, the district supervisor of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the city had taken operational steps to limit the potential re-occurrence of boil-water advisories, cleaning the system and increasing chlorine in the water in the future. The department blamed the old pipes, cold weather and population decline.
The elderly and parents of young children were urged to consult their doctors after the state found that the level of disinfecting chemicals in the water exceeded the threshold set by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Because of this, the city immediately warned its residents that the water contained by-products of disinfectants that may cause health issues including risks for cancer over time.
The Detroit’s water system offered a $4 million connection fee to restore their service. However, Jerry Ambrose, Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager and other city-officials declined the offer. They cited their concerns that water rates could go up more than $12 million each year, even the re-connection fee wavered. They insisted that the water should be safe.
The residents started to form a community forum with tote jugs of discolored water. The Detroit Free Press reported children were starting to develop rashes and were suffering from strange illnesses.
Lee-Anne Walters, a Flint resident, mother of four, contacted EPA with concerns about the dark sediment in her tap water. She thought of the possibility that it could make her children sick. The test results revealed that her water had 104 parts per billion (ppb) of lead, about seven times greater than the EPA limit of 15 ppb in the water. Because of this, the MDEQ was notified by the EPA of its results that dangerous levels of lead were detected in the water homes in Flint. Because even small amounts of lead, it could still cause lasting health and developmental problems in children.
The MDEQ noted “hiccups” change, including a build-up of Total Trihalomethanes ( TTHM), a cancer-causing byproduct of chlorine and organic matter. Elevated TTHM levels are not an immediate health emergency because the risk of disease increases only after years of consumption.
According to Miguel Del Toral, an EPA expert, the state was testing the water in a way that could profoundly minimize the lead levels. The officials played down the problems and said that the water is not an imminent threat to public health. For them, it was clear that the nature of the threat was addressed poorly. On the other hand, what most residents in Flint were more concerned and complaining about were other aspects of their water like the taste, smell and colour.
Another water testing was done in Mrs. Walters home. It detected 397 ppb of lead in tap water. Because of this, Flint City Council members voted 7-1 to stop using the Flint River as the water source and reconnected with Detroit. But Jerry Ambrose overrules the vote and named it as incomprehensible because the costs would skyrocket and water from Detroit was not safe compared to Flint.
With this, city officials promised to spend $2.24 million for immediate improvements to its water supply. Later that month, city officials said the water quality has improved and has met all state and federal standards for safety.
Various concerns were thrown to the MDEQ that link with Mrs. Walter’s video on lead. Flint’s administrator said that it would be untimely to draw any conclusions regarding lead base from the leaked internal EPA memo. The press have disseminated to keep the public calm, that the problem on lead in water was not widespread.
In fact, Dayne Walling, the Mayor of the city Flint drank a cup of tap water on a local television report to ensure the residents that it was safe for drinking. Governor Snyder's chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, however, emailed the Department of Community Health and responded that he is disappointed by the water issue in Flint. He did not think that people were getting the benefit of the doubt.
The MDEQ ordered Flint to improve the corrosion control treatment in the water supply due to the elevated lead levels as being reported from the first six months of 2015 reveals.
Marc Edwards, a professor, and with his team from Virginia Tech, were notified that the MDEQ conducted a water quality study. After, they issued a preliminary report indicating 40% of Flint homes have indeed elevated lead levels in water. The team recommended the state should declare their water as not safe for drinking or cooking. Also, the river water was corroding old pipes and lead was leaching into the water. These were the findings of their study.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who led the research team from Hurley Medical Center released a study revealing the number of children with elevated levels in their blood. Still, the state insisted that water was safe.
After the government epidemiologists validated the findings of Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the Flint officials urged the residents to stop drinking water. Governor Snyder ordered the distribution of water filters, the testing of water in schools and the expansion of water and blood testing. They demanded to discontinue the use of Flint River.
The city returned from the Flint River to its former source of treated water, the Detroit municipal system. The governor signed a spending bill appropriating $9.35 million to provide health services for residents and helped Flint reconnect with Detroit for water supply.
Governor Snyder has asked the help of the federal government in distributing water filters and bottled water after declaring the state of emergency in Flint. He announced an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease - a different form of pneumonia caused by any type of Legionella bacteria- that occurred in Flint area between June 2014 and November 2015, with 87 cases and 10 deaths. Michigan health officials reported an increase in Legionnaires' disease cases. It included some fatal patients over the past two years in the county and that included Flint.
Due to the outbreak, the Michigan National Guard was mobilized to help distribute clean water and sought the President’s help. But, he declined to declare a disaster in Flint. He authorized $5 million in aid instead of declaring a state of calamity in the city. The state of calamity allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to step in.
In order to ensure, state regulators were complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act. The agency issued an emergency administrative. They were being clear in their response to the water crisis. One of the employees, Liane Shekter-Smith, was the former chief of the Michigan Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, and other five current and former state workers were charged as the criminal investigation continued. She was facing charges due to willful negligence of duty for allegedly misleading the public and concealing evidence of rising lead levels in water.
The government has ordered the state of Michigan, in the city of Flint to deliver bottled water especially to homes. This is because they were not able to check or ensure whether the filters were working properly or not. One leader of a non-profit group helped residents with as much as 52% of the water filters installed in over 400 homes. These are the homes that had problems according to the court documents.
Two of Flint's former emergency managers and two water plant officials, who reported directly to the governor, were charged with crimes of false conspiracy and pretense. They were blamed for ambiguity on the Michigan Department of Treasury (MDT) into getting millions of bonds and then misused the money to finance the construction of a new pipeline.
Around $722 million complaints were filed against EPA on behalf of over 1,700 residents affected by the water crisis. The MDEQ announced that Flint’s water system no longer has levels of lead exceeding the federal limit. This was according to the recent six-month study. With this, the State considered ending the bottled water distribution in the City of Flint.
A $97 million budget was approved by the federal judge funding for Michigan to examine and replace lead water service lines for 18,000 Flint homes to be completed in a three-year time frame. Also, the EPA declared that it has awarded $100 million to Flint for drinking water infrastructure advancements.
Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, made a recommendation on where the city should get its drinking water for long time crisis that left the supply contaminated with lead. Governor Snyder agreed with her decision.
The Flint's water system was improving, but the issues on lead remained. There was an increased potential for lead to break off then enter the water supply. The city, state and federal officials continued to advise the residents to use water filters in their homes and it was expected to continue in 2018 and 2019.
A team of researchers collected samples from 138 Flint homes, for the fifth and likely final round last month. The testing showed that lead levels continued to stay well below the federal safety standard of 15 ppb.
High lead levels, which can cause developmental delay, miscarriage, and other problems, were found mostly in children. The outbreak has led to 15 current or former government officials being charged with crimes and lawsuits filed by several residents.
The state prosecutors announced that Michigan's top medical official, Dr. Eden Wells will be in-charge for any crime for her role in the water crisis, which was linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that caused at least 12 deaths.
The drinking water in Flint Michigan is now in compliance with federal regulations on lead and copper content. But the officials cautioned that it could be a year or more before it is safe for residents to drink from their faucets because lead-tainted pipes need to be replaced.
What is happening in Flint, Michigan is truly dreadful. The water contamination crisis will impact the community for decades and underscores how ensuring safe drinking water is serious, high-stakes work, most especially with the families and children impacted by this disaster.
As the crisis has unfolded, plenty of finger-pointing happened over who is to blame and what went wrong. Critics of private water solutions have awfully jumped on Flint as an opportunity to advance their agenda with no regard to actual facts. What happened in Flint is not far from what is happening in other parts of the world in the respect of water safety. Flint is one closer step to the path toward future.
The Flint Water Crisis Lessons
The decisions regarding dissemination of natural water resources have a chain of cause and effect to the public health. This is what happened here in the water supply in Flint, Michigan. The state government’s purpose was to save money but ended spending more when they made this decision. How can we identify and ethically handle public health concerns before they become crises, as displayed by this recent worst-case example from Flint? There are lessons we can learn from it.
Economics Can be Deceiving
Not every economically expedient decision is economically sound. Although switching Flint’s water supply to the river was supposed to save the city approximately $5 million over the course of two years, the costs of the water crisis created by this decision are estimated currently at $55 million and expected to climb as high as $1.5 billion, not even including the longstanding health and psychological effects on Flint residents.
Every economically expedient decision is not a guarantee that it is going to be economically sound as well. Although the switch from Detroit to Flint’s water supply was supposed to save the city with $5 million over the course of two years, the total expenditure made was $55 million and expected to climb as high as $1.5 billion. This didn’t include the longstanding health and psychological effects on Flint residents.
Pay Attention to Unexpected Consequences
Supplying safe drinking water needs a critical balancing act. Even a slight change in supply can cause slumping effects on an whole treatment and distribution system, so decisions must be made together with exhaustive research and advocacy.
A water system’s underlying job is simply not just to meet compliance, but to distribute truly safe drinking water and thereby protect public health. Initial adherence to regulations should be considered a minimum, C- grade level of satisfactory performance, and by no means a stopping point.
Thinking comprehensively about logical potentialities will help prevent unexpected consequences such as widespread lead poisoning. A good starting point is EPA’s Water Supply Guidance (WSG) manual’s policy statements and clarifications on intent.
The Time of Isolation is Gone
We are no longer living in a small-town farming culture. Our infrastructures and industries grow increasingly urban and interdependent. We can no longer manage the mentality that the world is an endless trashcan, on any governing or administrative level.
Sheila Suess Kenned, law and public policy professor at Purdue University, sums it up perfectly, saying “America is no longer a country of four million farmers and small merchants scattered along the eastern seacoast. The surprising majority of Americans no longer grow and preserve our own food or draw our water from a pristine nearby creek. Cars and factories discharge pollutants into our air, airplanes crisscross the skies, and we live in densely populated cities where—among other things—we can’t just toss our garbage out the back door.”
The Top Priority is Smart Management
The effects of climate change are prevalent as water usage drops, pollution increases, and storms become more violent. Because of this, cities are getting smarter about managing their drinking, rain and waste waters as fully integrated systems.
This has become crucial to not only advance distributing safe drinking water, but to fight these increasingly challenging issues, especially pollution. Without an increasingly big-picture view of systems that change entire populations, the end result can only be loss.
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