The first thing many residents noticed after water from the Flint River began flowing through their taps was the color. Blue one day, tinted green the next, sometimes shades of beige, brown, yellow. Then there was the smell. It was ripe and pungent–some likened it to gasoline, others to the inside of a fish market. After a couple of months, Melissa Mays, a 37-year-old mother of four, says her hair started to fall out in clumps, clogging the shower drain. She broke out in rashes and developed a respiratory infection, coughing up phlegm that tasted like cleaning products.
Mays wasn’t alone. Since April 2014, when Flint began drawing its water from the local river instead of buying Lake Huron water from Detroit–in order to save money–residents in this ailing industrial city began complaining of burning skin, hand tremors, hair loss, even seizures. Children were being diagnosed with anemia. Parents were finding strange red splotches on their hands and faces.
Yet for almost 19 months, as Flint River water corroded the city’s decades-old pipes and leached lead into the sinks and showers of a city of almost 100,000 people, officials repeatedly told residents the water was fine. Flint’s mayor appeared in front of TV cameras and gulped it down. A spokesman for the state’s top environmental regulator said anyone concerned about the water should “relax.” A warning memo written by a specialist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency went unheeded, and a city council vote to return the city to Detroit’s supply was overruled by an unelected emergency manager appointed by the governor. It wasn’t until late September 2015, when researchers at Hurley Medical Center in Flint reported that the incidence of lead contamination in the blood of children under 5 had doubled since the switch, that officials began to acknowledge the scope of the crisis.
Since then, an emergency that had been brewing largely out of sight has erupted into a national concern. Presidential candidates from both parties have been asked about it on the campaign trail. Senator Bernie Sanders called for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, to resign, while his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton framed it as a matter of race and inequality at the latest Democratic debate. “We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water,” Clinton said Jan. 17. “I’ll tell you what–if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it there would’ve been action.”
President Obama weighed in during a visit to Detroit on Jan. 20. “I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kids’ health could be at risk,” he said. “It is a reminder of why you can’t shortchange basic services that we provide to our people.”
Over the past month, the wheels of government, which had barely turned for over a year, creaked into action. On Jan. 12, seven days after declaring a state of emergency, Snyder mobilized the National Guard to patrol the city and hand out water. Four days later, President Obama designated Flint as a federal emergency area and freed $5 million in aid. And on Jan. 20, as calls for him to resign over his handling of the crisis grew louder, Snyder used his State of the State address to announce that he was seeking $28 million in state funding for Flint while offering a belated apology. “Government failed you,” Snyder said. “I am sorry, and I will fix it.”
To the residents of Flint, the sudden attention does little to offset more than a year’s worth of neglect. High levels of lead can lead to developmental problems and brain damage, and children under the age of 6 are considered especially vulnerable. Local cases of Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially deadly form of pneumonia, spiked after Flint switched its water supply. Ten of the 87 sickened people died, and health officials are now investigating a link between the outbreak and the river water. And though the city returned to Detroit’s water supply in October, the lead pipes remain so corroded that officials say the water is still unsafe to drink. A decision made to save money has crippled the city’s aging infrastructure and potentially poisoned a generation of kids. “We’re not a third-world country,” says Flint resident Tonya Burns. “Water is a natural right.”
How can government fail at a job so fundamental we take it as a given? The answer is a disastrous combination of bad policy, shortsighted decisions and bureaucratic malfeasance. Added up, the chain of neglect and incompetence has led many in Flint to see something more sinister: an absence of democracy. The city that gave birth to General Motors has fallen so far through the cracks that it feels as if the rest of the country has left it behind. The median income is less than $25,000–roughly half the state average. Predominantly Democratic and African American, over 60% of Flint and the surrounding Genesee County voted for Snyder’s opponent in 2014. And since 2011, it has largely been run by a series of unelected emergency managers appointed by Snyder. These managers, whose authority supersedes that of local elected officials, made critical decisions that helped bring on the water crisis and make it worse. “We’re poor,” says John Pemberton, 67, a Flint resident. “And because we don’t have anybody on our side that has any clout, Snyder didn’t care.”
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician whose research confirmed the rising lead levels, has since been praised for her work, with Snyder calling her out by name in his State of the State. But she is unsparing in her diagnosis of what went wrong: “They were being neglected,” she says at her office in Hurley’s children’s ward. “Moms were complaining. People were going to town-hall meetings and getting arrested. But nobody listened to them. It had to take evidence that children were being poisoned for people to listen, and that is too late.”
The city’s born-and-bred residents–who sometimes call themselves “Flintstones”–can still remember when Flint was not just a thriving city but a place where the American Dream took root. The reason is printed on the signs that still arch above Saginaw Street, which crosses the winding yellowish-green Flint River: Flint, Vehicle City. Over a century ago, General Motors started here. Buick and Chevrolet once called the city home, as did a range of related industries whose factories dotted the banks of the river. A strike in the 1930s gave birth to the United Auto Workers–and jump-started the modern labor union in the U.S.
But as automobile-manufacturing jobs moved overseas, Flint began a slow decline into the 21st century. By 2011, the city’s population was 100,000, half of what it was at its peak in 1960. With jobs scarce and better-off families escaping to the suburbs, Flint’s tax base hollowed out. Facing $15 million in debt, in 2011, Snyder appointed the first of four emergency managers to effectively run the city.
One idea for how Flint could save money was water. Since the 1960s, Flint had been buying its water from Detroit. But the Motor City was facing problems similar to Flint’s, and Detroit officials began raising the rates they charged other municipalities for water. From 2004 to 2013, the amount Flint paid for its water almost doubled. In April 2013, the Flint city council voted to switch its water source to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), a new regional pipeline project that would connect Flint directly with nearby Lake Huron. City officials projected that it would save Flint $19 million over eight years. But there were two problems: the pipeline wouldn’t be built until 2016, and Detroit quickly retaliated by saying it would stop selling water to Flint by April 2014.
The question soon became where Flint would get its water in the meantime. Dayne Walling, the mayor at the time, and state representative Sheldon Neeley, then a city-council member, say the idea to use the river as an interim source originated with emergency manager Ed Kurtz. (Kurtz did not respond to requests for comment.) What is clear is that in June 2013, two months after the city voted to join the KWA project, Kurtz signed a contract to set in motion using the Flint River as the primary source for municipal water. There was no public referendum or city-council vote. Still, the switch to the Flint River was celebrated by many local leaders. On April 25, 2014, city and state officials toasted with glasses of Flint River water as Walling hit a button officially shutting off Detroit’s water. “This is indeed the best choice for the city of Flint going forward,” Darnell Earley, the city’s emergency manager from September 2013 to January 2015–he succeeded Kurtz–reportedly said at the time. “The water quality speaks for itself.”
As Flint’s leaders cheered their fiscal prudence, the chain of events they had set in motion began to wreak havoc on the city’s aging water-delivery system. Water from the Flint River has particularly high levels of chloride, a substance so corrosive that its presence in road salts leads cars to rust. Most municipalities, including Detroit, add a chemical to help offset this corrosion. Yet despite having eight times as much chloride in it than Detroit water, the Flint River water was not treated with a corrosion inhibitor. As the water passed through the city’s aging lead pipes, it absorbed the toxin into the supply.
It wasn’t long before residents noticed a difference. “When they changed, almost immediately the taste, the odor, the color were different,” says Jackie Pemberton, John’s wife.
Four months into the switch, the city detected E. coli in the water and advised residents to boil it before consuming it. Soon, schools began buying bottled water in bulk. By October 2014, the water was so corrosive that GM announced it would no longer use municipal water at a local plant because it was damaging engine parts.
Still, the crisis stretched on as officials stonewalled citizens’ complaints. In January 2015, Lee-Anne Walters asked the city to test the orange-brown water coming from her tap. The results showed that her home had far exceeded the acceptable levels of lead. Yet the official line remained that Flint’s water was safe and any problems were isolated and not part of a systemic failure. Walters says the city told her they would shut off her water and hook her house up to a neighbor’s via a garden hose as a workaround. As more citizens began to voice complaints, Jerry Ambrose, who had replaced Earley as Flint’s emergency manager, argued that there was no need to revert to Detroit’s water and besides, doing so would bankrupt the city.
Walters persisted. Bypassing the state, she contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which tested her water and found even higher lead levels: 13,200 parts per billion, according to an EPA report. The federally accepted action level is 15. “I was at disbelief at that point,” Walters says. “Not only were they fighting this at every twist and turn, but there was hazardous waste coming into my home.”
The staggering results prompted Miguel Del Toral, an EPA water specialist, to send a memo to his boss and copy officials at the Michigan department of environmental quality (DEQ). His message was stark: Flint’s water contained toxic levels of lead because the state had failed to ensure it was properly treated for corrosion. Despite telling the EPA that it had a plan to limit corrosion, the DEQ apparently had none–a lack of safeguards virtually unheard of for any American city.
Instead of acting on Del Toral’s memo, however, the EPA stayed quiet about its concerns, opting instead to pressure state officials behind the scenes. The decision backfired in a major way. The DEQ refused to acknowledge any risks to Flint’s water supply, and an agency spokesman dismissed Del Toral to NPR as a “rogue employee.” The EPA did not respond to requests for comment on its handling of the case.
Without the threat of exposure by the EPA, Michigan environmental officials used their own investigations to downplay concerns. Citing Walters’ use of a water filter, DEQ officials disqualified the results from her home, even though the filter was removed during the test and in any event presumably would have lowered, rather than elevated, her lead levels.
The DEQ is “supposed to be the check on the city’s decision,” says Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental science at Virginia Tech whose research confirmed the elevated lead in Flint’s water. “Once they started making the decisions, there was no check and balance left except for the residents fighting for the truth.”
Not all officials were ignoring the problem. After meeting with Mays, who had become an outspoken activist, Snyder’s then chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, sent an email to state health officials saying that Flint residents felt as if they were “basically getting blown off by us.”
In an interview in his Lansing office on Jan. 14, as protesters marched outside, Snyder said the email shows that his administration was not neglecting the city and Muchmore was “concerned that we were getting straight answers so he asked tough questions and he got answers.” Yet the governor didn’t take any action until outside researchers got involved.
That began in August, when Walters contacted Edwards, who had done research exposing dangerously elevated lead levels in Washington, D.C., in the early 2000s. Edwards soon found levels of lead in Flint’s water far beyond what the state was admitting. Soon after, Dr. Hanna-Attisha began running her own numbers on blood lead levels of children after hearing the city didn’t have corrosion control in place. She found that the percentage of children in Flint with lead poisoning had doubled since 2013 and even tripled in some neighborhoods.
Within a week, Genesee County issued a public-health emergency and asked residents not to drink the water, marking the first official public acknowledgment that Flint’s water supply had been poisoned.
For many outraged by the crisis in Flint, all roads lead to Lansing. For almost five years, Flint has been effectively run by a series of unelected officials appointed by the governor. In Michigan, the cities that are often under emergency management–like Detroit, Pontiac and Highland Park–have been predominantly African American in a state that is only 14% black. This has led to allegations of racism–an ongoing federal lawsuit contends that the state’s emergency-management law violates the Voting Rights Act–and created the impression among many residents that if a lead outbreak had occurred in a more affluent and whiter city, the state would have responded with more urgency.
“The state was in charge of the city,” says Eric Scorsone, a professor of government at Michigan State University and an expert in the state’s emergency-management law. “So the state kind of has to own the problem.”
In December, a task force appointed by Snyder chastised the DEQ for its actions, saying the department failed to properly interpret the federal rule that designated acceptable lead levels while failing to require corrosion-control treatment for Flint River water. Following the report, DEQ director Dan Wyant resigned.
Kevin Creagh, the new director of the DEQ, says the agency was trying to act within technical compliance of its own internal regulations when it threw out samples like Walters’ high lead levels instead of stepping back and looking at whether there was a systemwide failure. “I think there was some tone-deafness,” he says.
Virginia Tech’s Edwards believes that the agency was trying to simply wait out the switch over to the Karegnondi Water Authority and Lake Huron. “They didn’t see the point in doing their job until that time,” he says, adding that the corrosion control needed for Flint would have cost roughly $80 to $100 a day. “That was their whole attitude. Let’s run out the clock.” (DEQ officials were unavailable to comment.)
As the crisis turned into a political firestorm, Snyder, a former accountant who was elected on a promise of “relentless positive action,” has tried to regain control. “As soon as I became aware of elevated lead levels in blood, we took action,” Snyder told TIME. He denies knowing anything about lead levels before October, when the Michigan department of health and human services confirmed what Hanna-Attisha had found in children’s blood levels, despite the fact that his former chief of staff had met with angry Flint residents in July. “I knew there were water issues in Flint,” Snyder says. “But did I know there were unsafe blood levels? No.”
Earning back the trust of city residents may prove impossible. Three class-action lawsuits have already been filed against state and city officials, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit has opened an investigation. But the legal issues are minor compared with the unknown future that many parents and their children face: years of anxious waiting to find out whether their child has developmental issues–simply because of turning on the faucet.
Ariana Hawk, 25, says she is terrified that’s what’s happening to her 2-year-old son Sincere Smith. He suffers from a full-body rash Hawk says is due to bathing in the tap water. “Every time he gets into contact with the water, he’s burning and itching,” she says. Hawk said a doctor advised her to stop using the city water. The family is awaiting the results of a test for lead poisoning, which has been detected in 35 children under 6 in Flint since October.
Other residents are trying to minimize the risk, however late. After one of her 5-year-old twin boys was found to have elevated levels of lead in his blood and developed anemia, Walters and her family now spend most of their time in Virginia. But even there, hundreds of miles from Flint, she won’t trust what’s coming out of her taps.
“We still don’t drink the water,” Walters says. “We still have a five-minute shower limit, even in Virginia. I will never again drink water from a water source because we’re told to. Never again.”
–With reporting by SEAN GREGORY AND ALEXANDRA SIFFERLIN/NEW YORK
This appears in the February 01, 2016 issue of TIME.
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