Correction appended, Jan. 13, 2017
For the residents of Flint, Mich., the burden of the ongoing water crisis can be measured in weight. Few outside of Vehicle City can tell you how much a 24-pack of bottled water weighs. But in Flint, they can recite it from memory: 26½ lb.
For more than a year, many Flint residents have been making the daily journey to distribution centers to load up on cases of water for virtually every basic chore: bathing, brushing teeth, making dinner. Twelve months after a state of emergency was declared to deal with the catastrophic decision to switch the municipal water supply to the Flint River, which allowed lead and other toxins from the city’s aging pipes to flow into residents’ taps, the water in Flint remains unsafe to drink without a filter–this despite $170 million in aid pledged by Congress, more than $200 million from the state and a concerted grassroots effort. But there are halting signs of progress.
The city has since switched its water source back to Detroit’s properly treated supply, and test results have started showing signs of normalcy. Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech environmental engineer who first independently confirmed the city’s elevated lead levels and who is now on a state-appointed committee to monitor the supply, says Flint’s water is no less safe than other sources around the nation. “There’s no reason to believe the water in Flint is any more dangerous than other U.S. cities,” Edwards says.
Some residents question those results. Melissa Mays, a Flint resident and organizer of Water You Fighting For?, a local advocacy group, says she still breaks out in rashes and wants more tests from showers and water heaters for bacteria like Legionella, an outbreak of which has killed 12 people around Flint since April 2014. “We feel like we’re right back at the beginning,” Mays says.
An investigation by the Michigan attorney general has led to 48 criminal charges for 13 state and local officials, including two of the city’s state-appointed emergency managers. Many could face decades in prison if convicted, and the attorney general has said the investigation isn’t over.
As the state tries to enforce accountability for the crisis, the city is working to replace its old lead pipes. But only 700 of Flint’s 30,000 lead service lines have been dug up and replaced. Overhauling them all will require far more than the $27 million the state has provided. “It’s a shame that it’s taken this long,” says Mayor Karen Weaver, who was elected in the wake of the crisis. “The bottom line is that we need and deserve new pipes.”
But even with new infrastructure, the real challenge in Flint may be restoring public confidence in the face of immeasurable distrust.
Correction: The original version of this story inaccurately described the number of criminal charges and individuals charged by the Michigan attorney general’s office. Forty-eight criminal charges have been filed against 13 state and local officials.
This appears in the January 23, 2017 issue of TIME.
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