Two Years After The Start Of The Flint Water Crisis, Here's What's Happened

Photo: Carlos Osorio/ AP Photo.
What happened in Flint seemed unthinkable in modern America.

Water in the Michigan city was discovered to be contaminated by high levels of lead, a known neurotoxin that is especially dangerous to children and pregnant women. As the crisis unfolded — leaving children covered in rashes or at risk of severe neurological impairment, or even death— many of us asked ourselves how it could have happened right under our noses.

Though the crisis started in early 2014, it didn't make national news until December 2015, when Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency in the city over the proliferation of lead in the water supply.

Within weeks, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder deployed the National Guard, and President Obama declared the situation a federal emergency. But the damage had already been done. Within months, the country was asking how the crisis could even have been allowed to happen in the first place.

Two years after the crisis started, Obama plans to visit Flint for the first time (thanks in part to one young girl's efforts). The president will hear firsthand about the situation and what still remains to be done.

Here's what you need to know before his visit.

What happened to the water?
In April 2014, the city of Flint, MI, changed its water source from the city of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department to the nearby Flint River in an effort to save money. The switch was intended to be a temporary measure while the city built a pipeline to the Karegnondi Water Authority, a project expected to save the region about $200 million over 25 years, according to NPR.

While the city issued several alerts over the detection of E. coli bacteria and possible carcinogenic chemicals in the water, the fatal flaw was in the water treatment. The Flint River has a history of heavy pollution, and the water that came from the river was more corrosive than the water that had been coming from Detroit. Officials did not treat the water against corrosion, and as it passed through the old lead and iron pipes of Flint’s infrastructure, lead began leaching into the water.

In February 2015, independent testing by researchers from Virginia Tech found lead levels in one home between 200 parts per billion (ppb) and 13,200 ppb, a number so outrageously high that investigators thought they had made a mistake until retesting confirmed the findings. The World Health Organization’s maximum allowable lead level is 10 ppb, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s actionable level is 15 ppb.

What happened after the lead was discovered?
Not enough, critics of the government's handling of the situation say. Authorities are accused of dismissing residents' concerns, falsifying safety tests, and having an overall incompetent response to public safety. Within a month of the switch, residents started complaining about the color, smell, and taste of the water. But the complaints were dismissed, with authorities assuring the public that the water was safe to drink — even after the Virginia Tech study found extremely high levels of lead. An investigation into the crisis, led by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, alleged in April that water treatment authorities falsified tests to show lower levels of contamination than were actually taking place, leaving residents vulnerable.
Once the contamination was confirmed, the city dragged its feet in implementing safety measures. In January, the organization issued an emergency order to force the city to take action. In its order, the EPA said that the city had “failed and continue[s] to fail” to provide information about the contamination, and that it was concerned that the city lacked the resources and expertise to fix the problems.

On December 14, 2015, Weaver declared a state of emergency, bringing the crisis to national attention. Several weeks later, Snyder followed suit, declaring an emergency for the county and deploying the National Guard to aid water distribution efforts. In the governor's statement, he declared local resources had been "insufficient" to address the situation.

How did it turn into such a big political issue?
In the months after the crisis came to light, questions arose about how much authorities knew about problems with the water, and when they had learned of them. Though Snyder said he didn’t know about the threat of lead contamination until October 2015, emails released by the governor’s office seem to show that advisors in the office were aware of the issues as early as October 2014, and that the governor was informed in February 2015, according to The Guardian. Snyder’s office did not return a request for comment on this story.

There's also the element of race and income. In Flint, where the population is majority Black and the median family income is less than $30,000, the crisis brought up questions about equitable access to public resources. At a Democratic debate in January, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton addressed the issue. "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," Clinton said. In response, Snyder accused Clinton of politicizing the issue for political gain.
What’s happening now?
Two years after it started, it looks like the crisis is slowly moving towards a resolution. The city switched back to Detroit water in October 2015. But the damage already done means that lead is still leaking into residents' water at dangerous levels, and the EPA's on-scene coordinator in Flint told FiveThirtyEight that it's likely to continue for the next few months. However, after many months of false assurances that their water was safe, some residents are hesitant to trust the water again at any point.

Since the Flint crisis came to light, there has been increased concern that similar lapses might be happening elsewhere. In February, The New York Times published a list of other cities where the drinking water had also been found to be contaminated. The outcry sparked calls for more thorough testing of drinking water for dangerous contaminants.

In April of 2016, the first criminal charges were laid against public officials in the crisis. Officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the city's water laboratory were charged with allegedly falsifying lead test results. More charges are expected to follow, according to The New York Times.

How can I help?
Since the situation became public, donations of clean bottled water have been coming in from aid organizations and private individuals, alike. For those who want to help, but don't live close enough to coordinate a water donation on their own, the United Way of Genesee County is accepting donations toward supplying residents with safe water. The Red Cross is also contributing to relief efforts.

If you're looking for a non-financial way to contribute, you can still use your most powerful weapon: your voice. As lawmakers call for more rigorous testing of water, you can call or email your public representatives (you can find them here and here) to encourage them to support testing to prevent Flint's crisis from happening somewhere else. If you're worried about the possibility of lead or other contaminants in your own water, you can contact the EPA's Safe Water hotline to get more information, or a regional representative to report an issue.

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