Flint water crisis: federal state of emergency expires, but the public health disaster is far from over

One of the country's leading lead exposure experts says the troubled Michigan city's water supply is 'dramatically better' than this time last year

Tim Walker
US Correspondent
Saturday 13 August 2016 04:27
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The federal government has been funding supplies of bottled water to the city since January
The federal government has been funding supplies of bottled water to the city since January

On January 16, President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in the Michigan city of Flint, to deal with a water crisis which saw tens of thousands of people potentially exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their public water supply.

Over the seven months since, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) has reportedly provided more than 20 million litres of bottled water and some 50,000 water filters to residents of the troubled city, for which the federal government split the costs 75-25 with the state.

The federal emergency declaration was originally set to expire in April, until Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder begged for an extension. This Sunday, 14 August, it will finally lapse for good.

Does that mean the crisis is over?

Hardly. It just means that after this weekend, the state will have to pick up the whole tab for the ongoing supply of uncontaminated drinking water. But Karen Weaver, who was elected Mayor of Flint last November, has reassured residents that they will still receive the free bottled water, filters and home water testing kits they have come to rely on.

“I want to assure residents of Flint that the city, along with our federal and state partners, will continue efforts to support Flint’s recovery after the federal declaration ends on 14 August,” Weaver said this week.

Fema has insisted it will not provide another round of aid, but that doesn’t mean federal support for Flint is drying up. The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has also been supplying extra medical services to the long-suffering city.

“We remain as dedicated today to the Flint community’s recovery as we were when President Obama declared an emergency in January,” DHHS assistant secretary Nicole Lurie said in a statement. “The many programs, services, resources, and benefits now available in Flint… will continue for months and in some cases for years to come.”

So can you drink the tap water in Flint yet?

Best not. Specialists from Virginia Tech University sampled drinking water from 160 homes in Flint last summer and again this July, and found that the levels of led in the supply had fallen by more than half and, in some places, by up to 80 per cent.

The tests were funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and led by Professor Marc Edwards, an expert on lead exposure, who said at a press conference this week that things were “dramatically better” than in 2015, calling it the “beginning of the end of the public health disaster in Flint.”

However, the test samples came from a random grouping of homes, not necessarily those in the highest risk areas, meaning the results are not yet sufficient to qualify Flint’s drinking water supply as officially safe under EPA rules.

“Flint’s water system has gone from the worst-monitored to the best monitored in the nation, and our data shows that water quality is significantly moving in the right direction,” said Bob Kaplan, an EPA spokesman. “But we won’t be at the finish line until testing can confirm that Flint residents are receiving safe, clean drinking water.”

Remind me how this mess got started.

In 2014, Darnell Earley, an emergency city manager sent to rescue Flint from bankruptcy had the bright idea to save municipal cash by drawing the city’s drinking water supply not from the nearby Detroit water system, which originates in Lake Huron, but from the Flint River. The same Flint River that has had sewage, road salt, factory chemicals and other waste dumped in it for decades.

That water was already so toxic that it began to corrode the old lead pipes in the city’s plumbing system, leaching lead directly into the supply. State officials also failed to add special chemicals designed to prevent pipe erosion. Earley and then-mayor Dayne Walling nonetheless continued to tell suspicious residents that their foul-tasting new water was fit to drink.

An estimated 8,000 children were among those thought to have been exposed to lead poisoning. The city saw an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease thought to be connected to the water. In January 2015, the city admitted the presence of dangerous chemicals in the water and the issue turned into a full-blown controversy.

Last October the city switched back to the Detroit water system, but that’s not enough: the lead from the already corroded pipes is still leaching into the water.

What happens next?

Whatever happens next, it won’t happen overnight. Years of serious investment are required to upgrade and monitor Flint’s water supply infrastructure. The city has already started replacing its thousands of lead pipes, a process expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.

And it’s not just Flint. A report by USA Today found high concentrations of lead in almost 2,000 water systems across all 50 US states.

According to Edwards, the Virginia Tech expert, “It might very well, across the country, take 100 years before we get all the lead plumbing out.”

Is anyone going to be prosecuted over the crisis?

At least nine people are already facing criminal charges for misconduct during the water crisis, including former employees of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Michigan Department of Health and a former Flint city water plant operator.

There are also several individual and class action lawsuits in the works, targeting – among others – Earley, Walling and Snyder.

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