A year ago, Flint, Mich., Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency because of lead-contaminated drinking water, attracting national outrage and sympathy, and millions of gallons of donated water.
But a year later donations have slowed to a trickle, and little has changed — unfiltered water here is still unsafe to drink.
With frigid temperatures and flurries swirling around outside, the crowd inside Flint’s downtown transit station ebbs and flows as buses come and go.
At the end of one bus terminal, 10 large pallets of bottled water stand about 4 feet tall. Keith Hill fills two bags with about 20 pounds of water bottles before making the long trek home.
He hates doing this.
“Yeah, it’s pretty much bad, because we can’t do nothing about it, and they ain’t doing nothing about it,” Hill says. “City of Flint going down — that’s making it worse.”
Many residents say that Flint’s decades old economic struggles only have been worsened by this crisis, and that despite all the attention, there has been little progress.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver also is frustrated.
“We’re in year three, actually, of not being able to drink water, and that still makes no sense to me,” Weaver says. “And it shouldn’t make sense to anybody else.”
Flint’s drinking water issues date back to 2014, when the city’s water source was switched to the Flint River. Mistakes in treating the corrosive river water damaged pipes, which continue to leach lead. Despite tests showing lead levels declining, many people don’t believe their tap water ever will be safe to drink again.
The state has spent more than $200 million in Flint distributing more than 3 million cases of bottled water and 145,000 water filters. State officials are trying to convince residents to use the filters, but many just don’t trust them.
Replacing The Lines
Flint is getting some help, though.
Last week, Congress finally approved $170 million in aid — though city officials say they’ll need tens of millions more to replace all of the city’s lead pipes. The state says about 600 pipes have been replaced this year; at that rate it would take half a century to replace more than 30,000 suspect lines.
Michael McDaniel oversees the effort.
“It was a matter of the city really lacking, not just the finances, but because they lacked the finances for so long they lacked the capacity,” McDaniel said.
While McDaniel expects the pace to speed up, it still will take years and cost more than $100 million to replace all the lines.
More than 400 civil lawsuits — some of them class-action cases — will take years to be resolved too, and there are criminal cases as well. Nine government employees have already been charged with tampering with evidence and willful neglect of office. Two have cut deals with a special prosecutor, but more charges could be coming.
Water for the holidays
At the end of a difficult year, some Flint residents are trying to put the water crisis aside to get in the Christmas spirit.
A few days ago a small crowd gathered outside Flint city hall to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season with a tree lighting ceremony.
But even at a Christmas event, the water crisis was not far away. As a choir sang outside city hall, many in the crowd moved inside, where their kids could sit on Santa’s lap and where the adults could do something they’ve been doing all year long — pick up some bottled water to take home.