Life in Flint a Year Into the State of Emergency Over Tap Water

Mayor declared state of emergency over lead in water in 2015.

ByABC News
December 23, 2016, 4:00 PM

— -- More than a year after unsafe lead levels in municipal drinking water led the mayor of Flint, Michigan, to declare a state of emergency, many residents are waiting for a return to normal.

"I think people are trying to get to a place of hope," Kenyatta Dotson, a lifelong resident and county social worker said. "We're trying to get to place where we see light at end of the tunnel."

But, as 2016 comes to a close, community leaders and residents have said that the system, while somewhat better, is far from fixed.

Recent tests have continued to show lead levels in Flint water are lower than federal requirements, according to state officials. Residents are advised to continue using filters "out of an abundance of caution," according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Even with filters, many residents have expressed fear and concern about the safety of the water. As long as the current lead pipes remain in place, many people in the community won't feel safe to drink from the tap.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver started the FAST Start initiative to replace lead and galvanized steel pipes that lead from the street to individual homes earlier this year.

As of this month, they have replaced lines at 625 homes, the mayor's office said in a statement, and their goal is to replace lines for about 1,000 homes in this phase. But, as many as 29,100 Flint residences have lead or galvanized steel water service lines that likely need replacement.

Residents remain guarded about if and when enough work will be completed to make their home tap water safe again.

"I think we're just anxious for answers and for consistent answers and for resources so we can get the pipes fixed," Dotson told ABC News. "To get back to a place of normalcy or at least have a time line of when that might occur."

PHOTO: Flint resident Tiesha Taylor and her daughters Mariah, 7, and Kaerya, 12, laugh aloud together at an event inside a Meijer store in Burton, Mich. on Dec. 6, 2016.
Flint resident Tiesha Taylor and her daughters Mariah, 7, and Kaerya, 12, laugh aloud together at an event inside a Meijer store in Burton, Mich. where firefighters and police officers shop for holiday gifts with the children as part of an annual charity event, Dec. 6, 2016.
Jake May/The Flint via AP

Earlier this week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette made clear that the investigation into the water crisis has not ended. He charged the four officials with multiple felonies, including conspiracy to commit false pretenses and false pretenses over their roles in the crisis. Each of those charges carries a maximum of 20 years in prison.

"Flint deserves better. The people of Flint are not expendable," he said in a press conference Tuesday announcing the charges. "People in positions of responsibility, who broke the law, must be held responsible."

Elevated lead levels were found in Flint's municipal water supply when it was drawing water from the Flint River in April 2014, after disconnecting from Detroit's municipal water system. The move was intended as a stopgap measure until the completion of a pipeline to Lake Huron as the source for Flint's municipal water.

Lead from Flint's old pipes was leaching into the water because of improper treatment of the water from the Flint River, which had a different mix of elements that were more corrosive. Though the city switched back to the Detroit water supply in October 2015, residents are advised to keep using filters out of an abundance of caution and officials are continuing to monitor lead levels at multiple sites in the system.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency on Dec. 14, 2015 and extended it indefinitely last month.

A CDC study published in July of this year found that after the water switch was made, children under the age of 6 were 46 percent more likely to have elevated lead levels in their blood than before.

From left, Jim Loria, of Swartz Creek, helps Gabriel Riley, 4, of Burton, to the finish line during the 60th annual Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, at Mott Park in Flint, Mich.
Tegan Johnston/The Flint via AP

Many people still plan their lives around finding clean water, Nayyirah Shariff, a resident of Flint and director community coalition Flint Rising said.

She uses filtered tap water to clean her dishes, but only bottled water to clean and cook food. Shariff is wary of using the standard tap water filters since common mistakes and using hot water can greatly diminish their effectiveness.

"You have the capability to inject human error," Shariff said, explaining some people didn’t know they were supposed to change the filter once a month and it’s easy not to realize when a friend or child has run hot water through the filter.

"You're basically playing Russian roulette," she said.

Like many other people, Shariff said she also picks up packs of bottled water from state-run centers on her weekend time. She has changed the meals she cooks, giving up pasta for other items that use less water. Without reliable, clean tap water she doesn't can in-season fruits as a hobby anymore.

PHOTO: Kylan Pouncil, 10 months,  is passed to Santa Claus as members of the community gather for a tree lighting on Dec. 2, 2016 in Flint, Mich.
Kylan Pouncil, 10 months, is passed to Santa Claus as members of the community gather for a tree lighting on Dec. 2, 2016 in Flint, Mich.
Callaghan O'Hare/The Flint via AP

Another common fear is bathing or showering with hot water. Cases of the bacterial infection Legionella increased during the water crisis. The bacteria can cause serious or even deadly infections if breathed in through hot steam.

"When I go out of town, I’m very happy to take a hot shower or a bath," said Shariff, who said she hasn’t taken a hot shower in her own home in three years.

Community groups working with Flint Rising advocate the complete replacement of the city's water pipes, for unpaid water bills to be forgiven, for residents to receive a refund for the months when the water was not drinkable and for health and education services to be provided to the affected community.

"In my opinion, I’m happy it got international attention," Shariff said about the Flint water crisis.

But since time has passed, "People erroneously make the assumption that things are fixed."

Government leaders from the state of Michigan and the city of Flint, as well as community organizations have taken steps to protect the community. Currently 13 people have been charged the state attorney general over their role in the water crisis.

After the water was deemed dangerous in 2015, the city tapped into the Detroit water supply. It will be switched to Lake Huron water when the pipeline is completed. The water treatment plant now uses anti-corrosive chemicals to help diminish the chance that lead will end up in the water.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver started the FAST Start initiative to replace lead and galvanized steel pipes that lead from the street to individual homes earlier this year.

A Pediatric Public Health Initiative was created in January to help give kids exposed to lead access to medical and nutritional help. Among the projects, families with children can receive waivers to pick up healthy food at local markets. Flint residents can also apply for credit for discounted water bills through the Water Credit Refund program.

Congress approved a bill to authorize water projects across the country, which includes provision to give $170 million to Flint, according to the Associated Press.

Marc Edwards, professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech and head of the team that first sounded the alarm of lead levels in Flint, said he has been heartened by progress. But, much more is needed.

Overall, water quality has improved tremendously, but the stubborn problem is the remaining old pipes. Edwards said health officials may never really be able to give the all clear while the chemically dangerous infrastructure is still in use.

"Basically we're not going to fool ourselves anymore," he said.

"Drinking water through a 30 foot long lead straw?" Edwards said. "It’s a hazardous activity."

But the city must remain vigilant. Small pieces of rust or particles can end up in the water even if it is well treated, he explained. As a result, a single site can test for safe water "10 or 20 or 30 times" and test positive for a high level of lead later.

"It's the same dose as if your kid ate eight or 10 paint chips," Edwards explained. "The one unlucky glass of water to cause health harm."

Filters have worked very well in their experiments and often last longer than their expiration dates, he said.

The legacy of Flint may be drawing attention to how much harm decaying and outdated infrastructure can cause -- and how water safety laws need to be better enforced.

"We have laws," Edwards said. "If the laws were followed none of this would have happened."

Doctors are also hopeful that the attention surrounding Flint will ultimately help other communities, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician whose research showed children in Flint with elevated lead levels, told ABC News.

"It led to recognition that lead in water is problem in other communities," Hanna-Attisha said in an interview last month. "I want to prevent future Flints and [protect] future children from being exposed."

An initiative to diagnose and help children who have developmental delays after lead exposure is in progress. Hanna-Attisha along with others at the Hurley Medical Center are working with Michigan State University and the Genesee County Health Department as part of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, which started in January.

Though Hanna-Attisha is excited about the progress the program has made in getting children access to healthier foods and other medical attention, she acknowledged residents remain traumatized and angry about the situation and the danger to their children.

"This trauma is so raw," Hanna-Attisha said. "The people in Flint just want to be regular normal people."

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