Flint’s River of Poison

Three years after disastrous levels of lead were found in the Michigan city’s drinking water, the people of Flint are living — and fighting — a new nightmare.

October 09, 2017

Flint, Michigan, is infamous for the agonies it inflicted on its people when it switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a water source three years ago. The idea was to save $5 million.

Residents of Flint—most of whom are African-American, with more than 40 percent living below the poverty line—began to complain about the smell and color of the water and were assured it was safe. When it was too late, tests revealed dangerous levels of lead leaching into the supply from the city’s old pipes. Water from the Flint River was 19 times as corrosive as Detroit water from Lake Huron, a study by Virginia Tech found. A generation of children exposed to the metal is now at risk of developmental disorders.

Most of the cameras are long gone. The people, and the poison, remain, captured in the photos below. Many are surviving on bottled water. Some are stuck with crushing water service bills they were told they wouldn’t have to pay.

Certanya Johnson (right) has received a water bill of almost $11,000. Flint has the highest water rates in Michigan.

Water bottles are distributed from pallets daily from noon to 6 p.m. at locations around the city. Only four distribution sites remain, with long lines.

Flint’s pipe replacement team.

“My hands were peeling like snake skin. Then I started getting rashes. Then the pipes crumbled like aluminum foil” when sediment built up in the shower and kitchen filters, said Sandra Branch, a community leader. “I kept getting pneumonia, and they said I had Legionnaires’ bacteria, but they wouldn’t connect it to the water. A lot of people are angry and wondering where the money went.”

In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Flint a $100 million grant to replace the pipes, along with $20 million in matching funds from the state. This supplemented $250 million in state funding already allocated to the crisis.

“There’s nothing improving here. They have people outside of Flint believing everything’s OK, and it’s not,” said local activist Arthur Woodson, who successfully petitioned to put a recall of Mayor Karen Weaver on the November ballot. Woodson, who has lived in the city since he was 4, said the rest of the country has largely forgotten about his community.

Efforts to interview the mayor about the city’s response to the crisis were unsuccessful.

Councilman Scott Kincaid said the city government is looking for a long-term water source, securing funding for pipe replacement, and searching for an infrastructure project manager.

“It takes time to identify the homes that have lead lines, and then it takes time to replace them,” he said. “We’re not going to stop until all lead and galvanized pipes are replaced.”

Branch thinks a mayoral recall would only be a setback.

“Changing would take another plan and another study,” she said. “How many times are they going to study the fact that they f----- up?”

Errors in the index cards’ information have caused delays and unnecessary excavations.

Retired National Guard Brig. Gen. Michael McDaniel leads the city’s pipe project.

Community leader Sandra Branch.

City Council member Eric Mayes.

Elevated levels of lead in the blood of an estimated 8,000 Flint children will result in $395 million in social costs to the city, Peter Muennig, a professor of public health at Columbia University, has estimated. Apart from the devastating human toll, the lead exposure could lead to lower IQ levels, resulting in reduced economic productivity and reliance on the welfare system. By contrast, according to a recent report, adding common anti-corrosion chemicals to prevent the leaching in the first place would have cost the city $200 a day.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged five state officials this summer with involuntary manslaughter, saying they failed to alert the public about cases of Legionnaires’ disease. Fifteen other state and local officials were previously charged criminally for their handling of the water crisis.

Flint aims to replace all lead or lead-tainted pipes within four years. Four contractors in 10 zones are changing out the lines, with one company working through the winter. As of late June, 2,037 lines had been replaced, putting the group on track to reach its goal of 6,000 by the end of the year.

The team is working off 138,000 index cards with addresses and information on pipes and maintenance, said retired National Guard Brig. Gen. Michael McDaniel, who is leading the effort. Errors in the cards can cause delays or even excavations that reveal the desired copper pipes already in place. The rate of unnecessary excavations is still 15 percent, according to McDaniel, though it’s down from 27 percent. The oldest note card is from 1912.

Kyle Baisden, who works for Gen. McDaniel on the pipe replacement project.

Arthur Woodson successfully petitioned to get a recall of Mayor Karen Weaver on the ballot in November.

Quincy Murphy is one of the 8,000 residents told they could lose their homes if they don’t pay their water bills.

The Broome Center, a community athletic center.

Flint, 70 miles northwest of Detroit, was once a thriving city with the nation’s biggest General Motors plant. Today it has a median household income of $25,000, compared with $50,000 for the state, and a pervasive toxin still leaching into the lives of its residents.

Quincy Murphy is one of the 8,000 people told they could lose their homes if they don’t pay their water bills. Many of his neighbors have fled the city because their water is making them sick or they can’t pay their bills, he said. The neighborhood now looks like “a war zone.”

Downtown, a very different landscape is emerging as old buildings are demolished and developers snap up land on the cheap, posting glamorous visions of a new Flint. Trendy lofts and gated townhouse apartments rise alongside the expansions of the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Kettering University.

For all the fear and failure, Flint is also the story of an embattled community coming together—or fighting back.

One of many examples is George Grundy, who heads the nonprofit Veterans for Now, which helps distribute water to residents whose pipes haven’t been replaced. For them, he said, picking up bottled water is “like a religion now.”

Another is Murphy himself, who says residents have lost trust in their elected officials and who has decided to stick it out and run for City Council. The current government is “constantly just focusing on the water. They forget that we have to run day-to-day operations,” he said.

Eric Mayes, a high-octane City Council member (“when they go low, I go lower”) who pushed Flint to declare a state of emergency, opposes gentrification and wants to bring industry back to Flint.

The water crisis has “created a media intoxication,” he said. “Some people just like to see themselves on the news.”

Karen Weaver, Flint’s first female mayor.

News media are still to be found in Flint, reporting on the city’s recovery efforts, but Woodson said the rest of the country has largely forgotten about his community.

Residents of Flint, like Robert Bradley, could be stuck living off bottled water for the next two years.

Photographer: Ben Sklar for Bloomberg

Reporting: Claire Ballentine and Ben Sklar

Editor: Peter Jeffrey

Photo Editor: Eugene Reznik

Development: James Singleton