Cringe over troubled water - Flint’s smelly dilemma

Ineatha Waters pays for water she does not drink.

She goes through about two cases of water a week because the notice sent to Flint residents this month scared her away from drinking what comes from her tap ‒ even though that water was said to be safe to drink.

When she bathes, she adds a few drops of bleach, says a prayer and hopes that it and her immune system can fight off any potential harm ‒ real or perceived ‒ from direct contact with the city's water. The water has come from the Flint River since the city ended its contract with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department last April. Officials say they are working to improve water quality as Flint transitions to a new water system in 2016.

"I feel like I'm living in a third-world country,” said Waters, 45. “I want to have safe, clean water to drink like every other American should in the United States of America. The mayor has written a letter, but he's not in control of the city. We don't know where to go next for help. Who do we go to?"

In response to residents' angst, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling recently wrote Gov. Rick Snyder asking for help. Among other requests, Walling wants the state to dip into resources earmarked for water improvements and distressed cities across Michigan to help Flint get through its water debacle, while also seeking more water quality reporting statewide.

Frustrated residents say the state owes Flint as much, considering that a state-appointed emergency manager for the cash-short city made the decision to switch Flint’s water sources from the Detroit system, which gets its water from Lake Huron, to a system that gets drinking water from the Flint River, which is more difficult to treat.

The mayor's requests and frustrated residents' demands, if heeded, could have ripple effects across the state.

“More than any other issue, water affects almost everything,” said Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group.

The mayor and residents are looking to the right person for answers, Lupher said. In the line of accountability, Flint residents have to hold the governor responsible for the emergency manager’s decisions because the people of Michigan voted for governor; they did not vote for emergency manager.

“On the issue of responsibility, there probably isn't any legal responsibility for the state,” Lupher said, “but the there certainly is a moral responsibility.”

Low-quality, but safe

Flint residents have thronged to public meetings and protests since the state Department of Environmental Quality reported last month that the city’s drinking water exceeded federally permitted levels of trihalomethane, or TTHM, a byproduct of chlorine-treated water. Excess trihalomethane over many years can cause liver, kidney or central nervous system problems, and an increased risk of cancer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The MDEQ’s notice of excess TTHM indicated that problems existed almost from the start of Flint’s foray into water treatment last spring, problems that included boil water advisories and weeks of flushing city fire hydrants.

City and state officials say that, despite high TTHM levels, the water, which residents say carries an unpleasant taste and odor, is nevertheless safe to drink, though they’ve also noted that the most vulnerable residents (infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems) should seek medical advice before drinking the water.

In his Jan. 18 letter to the governor, Mayor Walling said "there is nothing more important in Flint right now" than fixing the months-long problems with the drinking water.

In an interview, Walling said he does drink the Flint water, but understands why others do not. “The city is taking steps to improve the quality of the water while steps are taken to ensure the safety,” he said.

Government officials acknowledge that water quality is a problem, but say the excessive TTHM levels are neither an emergency nor public safety threat in the short term. “The quality of the water does need improvement, but that is not to be confused with safety of the water,” the city’s online explainer about the water issue says.

Jill Thiare, spokesperson for the nonprofit Water Research Foundation based in Denver, echoed that finding, and noted, after reviewing the MDEQ notice to Flint residents, that “all (water) samples taken during the last sample date of the year, were at the lowest levels across all test sites, which may be an indicator of progress. The increased levels may have been caused by a temporary (not permanent) fluctuation in the water source.”

Lingering mistrust

That has done little to satisfy residents who toted their discolored tap water to a public meeting last week and said they are planning further action. In the meantime, local stores are stocking up and marking down bottled water while local charities and businesses are giving it away to the poor.

If Walling has his way, the state will help underwrite Flint’s water recovery while also taking steps to help the state’s most vulnerable residents in the future. In his letter, Walling requested:

  • That the state approve Flint's request for $2 million in Distressed Cities grants ($1 million to pay for leak detection in the Flint water system; and $1 million to shift to a more economical way of disposing of waste water byproducts.)
  • Federal and state support for forgiving Flint’s debt payments to the Drinking Water Revolving Fund
  • Creation of a drinking water emergency assistance fund to help poor elderly, vulnerable and poor families, much like agencies such as The Heat and Warmth Fund help needy people with utility bills
  • That water testing dates be reported to all Michigan communities at least quarterly. Such reporting would be more frequent than the annual reporting required under federal law.

“We need the governor to respond,” Walling said, referring to his letter. “But we’re not waiting for others to realize that this is serious before we do what we can.”

Congressman Dan Kildee (D-Flint) also mentioned that the city’s loan payments may need to be revisited. Michigan's Drinking Water Revolving Fund helps water suppliers meet the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act by offering low-interest loans.

“My office is here to help assist in seeking of support for federal or state funding, such as the Drinking Water Revolving Fund,” he said in a statement.

A costly precedent

The suggestion that the state step in and agree to forgive a municipality’s debt is something that doesn’t happen often because such a move could create a costly precedent.

If the state considered taking on Flint's revolving loan payments, that would reverberate around the state, said Lupher, of the Citizens Research Council. “A hundred units of government would be putting their hands up saying, ‘Me next!’”

So far, Snyder's office is making no promises, except to put out a statement saying the state was working closely with the city on its drinking supply, adding, "Flint residents deserve clean, safe water."

State Sen. Jim Ananich (D-Flint) understands some of his impoverished constituents in Flint may be afraid of the water but have no choice but to drink it. But he can’t bring himself to do it. The state, he said, has an obligation to allay fears and expedite a solution because the city is run by a state-appointed emergency manager.
“The state clearly broke the system - if you break it, you should have to buy it,” Ananich said. “If that means debt forgiveness, technical or financial assistance, the state (appointed emergency manager) should not leave without fixing this.”

Paying the price

Flint’s water woes started as a plan to save the financially-troubled city millions in fees.

In April, Flint disconnected from the Detroit water system which uses water from Lake Huron. Since then, the city has been treating water from the Flint River and pumping it to customers. River water is more challenging to treat due to the fluctuations in water temperature and other factors. The city is scheduled in 2016 to hook up to the Karegnondi Water Authority, which also uses water from Lake Huron.

The city may have troubled waters, but the liquid is helping clear up the budget. Before and after the city left the Detroit water system, Flint raised water and sewerage rates. Last year, Flint customers paid $35 more per month in water and sewer fees than other nearby municipalities.

As a result, the Flint city audit released Monday shows income jumped by $4.7 million raised mostly through the 25 percent increase in sewerage rates in 2013. Rates rose by an average 6 percent in 2014 and will increase by another 6 percent this year.

Rev. Byron Moore, a member of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, said the increased water rates have made tempers boil over.

“We’re paying more for something that can be detrimental to you,” Moore said. “People are scared. They say if you drink the water you won’t fall out. Maybe not today but what about tomorrow? There’s fear of long-lasting impact on health and the ecology. And anger over the lack of a democratic process. The emergency manager made this decision to use the Flint River water. The mayor is powerless.”

The city must file a evaluation report with updated sample results by March 1, according to the notice from the MDEQ.

Flint’s Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose is looking to hire a consultant experienced in river water treatment to help clean up the water problem. The city expects to make a hire by the week of Feb. 9.

In the meantime, Sue McCormick, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, this month offered to let Flint rejoin its water system, at least until Flint’s permanent system comes online next year. It’s an offer that Flint has so far rebuffed.

In the meantime, Rev. Moore said the minister’s organization was scheduled to meet on Tuesday to discuss how to galvanize congregations and the community in response to what the group perceives as inaction by the state.

“There are rumblings about a class action suit,” he said. “The very first time we get validation from the medical community that there was an illness - or God forbid a death - that can be attributed to this water, I cannot tell you how bad it’s going to be.

“The dam is going to burst at that point. The state definitely needs to do something.”

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Thu, 01/29/2015 - 7:22am
I don't blame them, I wouldn't drink that water either no matter what assurances they gave that it was safe.
David L Richards
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 10:16am
A related issue is the construction of the Karegnondi water system which Flint is eventually going to use. It is duplicative of the Detroit system, and will result in higher water bills for the metropolitan Detroit water users because the fixed costs of the Detroit system will have to be covered by fewer people. That duplication was approved by the State of Michigan.
Charles Richards
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 12:20pm
The article failed to provide any information about the cost differential between Flint river water and reconnecting to Detroit's system. The article says "the Flint city audit released Monday shows income jumped by $4.7 million raised mostly through the 25 percent increase in sewerage rates in 2013." Does that $4.7 million just cover increased costs? I thought state law prohibited municipalities from making a profit on water. The article also says, " Last year, Flint customers paid $35 more per month in water and sewer fees than other nearby municipalities" How much of the $35 per month is attributable to water and how much to sewage?
Sat, 01/31/2015 - 8:46am
Hi, Charles. Thanks for the response. You are correct. The story did not go into detail about the financials. It would've been a huge chunk of tangential information in a story meant to delve more into the policy and governance implications/obligations. However, that's what links are good for. We supplied links that give answers to your questions/concerns.
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 1:10pm
The State should stay out of the water problem in Flint as there is a simple solution; reconnect to the Detroit water supply until the Karegnondi system is ready. It will cost more up front but will pay off in the long run. Forgiving Flint's debt is just rewarding a pattern of poor management by the city.
Mon, 02/02/2015 - 8:52pm
There's a lot more to this story. Many people have pointed out that the infrastructure is also a major issue. The increased rates to Flint water & sewage customers were supposed to go toward rebuilding the pipes and mains that keep rupturing. These problems will continue with the Detroit water as well, ruining the clean water the citizens were all happy with. However, the money is being put in the General fund instead of going to fix the water lines. From there, the money is disappearing and the city's infrastructure collapses. There are sinkholes and broken mains all over town and no one is doing anything but putting orange cones over them. This proves that the KWA will not be viable as well, but no one is addressing this either. There are citizen protests and a march scheduled all month. The march is 2/14 at 1 pm starting at City Hall. The citizens are peacefully demanding information, answers and solutions since none are being given.
Paul Jordan
Wed, 09/16/2015 - 4:42pm
Don't be complacent if you don't live in Flint (as I do). Your city may well follow ours, in time, given the direction that things are going. There is currently a research project underway by Virginia Polytechnic (Va Tech) that sampled water from over 300 Flint homes (including mind) that show highly elevated levels of lead in the water supply. According to the researchers, this seems to be due to very high levels of chloride in the Flint river's water which has corroded iron pipe, lead pipe, and solder within the water distribution system. As a result, in the 15 months that we have used Flint river water our already elderly distribution system has suffered an estimated 12 years worth of wear and tear. Since it may be another 15 months before we are once again using Lake Huron water, our water mains may suffer another 12 years worth of wear. Amazingly enough, the city (under the DEQs direction) never discovered the excess lead levels. They were careful to flush the entire water system before testing (thereby reducing lead levels), and tested homes that they knew had low levels or homes served by mains that had recently been replaced. They avoided homes that they knew (from previous testing) had higher lead levels. They then said that the water met quality standards, and was safe. To replace our water distribution system would take an estimated $1.5 billion that, of course, as a poor city we will never have.
Sat, 01/16/2016 - 5:55pm
Sounds like families need to relocate. What is the population of the affected area? What about pipes in the homes? Are they contaminated?