In a sign that the Flint water crisis is possibly nearer its end than the beginning, the state of Michigan is closing more than half of the bottled water distribution centers Flint residents have relied on since the crisis began.
For more than a year, Flint residents have included a stop at their neighborhood distribution center to pick up a case or two or more of bottled water during their errands.
Fear about lead and other possible contaminants flowing from their kitchen water taps created this reliance on bottled water.
But the days of free water from the state is coming to an end.
“This is great news because one thing we can all agree on is that we don’t want to be on bottled water forever,” says Mayor Karen Weaver. “We’re headed in the right direction.”
Weaver was joined by state officials to announce five of the nine water distribution centers handing out cases of bottled water and filters will close between now and September 5th.
The state is scaling back the bottled water distribution program as testing has shown Flint’s tap water is below the federal action level for lead.
“The city’s water is currently testing at 7 parts per billion, which is much lower than the federal requirement of 15 parts per billion,” says Keith Creagh, the director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “The Flint water system, thanks to great efforts by people at the water plant and by those that have responsibility for the water to make dramatic improvements.”
Improperly treated water from the Flint River damaged aging pipes, which leached lead into the tap water. However, nearly two years after switching back to water from Detroit and adding additional anti-corrosion chemicals, Flint’s tap water is once again safe to drink, albeit with a filter.
“Make no mistake about it. Flint’s water quality has been restored,” says Rich Baird, a special advisor to Governor Snyder and the governor’s point man on the Flint water crisis.
However, restoring public trust is not that simple.
Reverend Wallace Hill represents the Concerned Pastors for Social Action in Flint. He expects trust will remain an issue for a long time.
“We think that the water is OK,” says Hill. “But the trust factor of our residents is not there. And we just don’t want to pull the rug out. People have to grow into accepting the fact that the water is OK.”
While many in Flint may see the closing of five of nine water distribution sites as bad news, Jamie Gaskin sees it as a positive.
Gaskin is the head of the local United Way. He says the alternative could have been the state closing all the centers.
“We were all prepared for there to be a hard stop in September,” says Gaskin. “Although this isn’t every POD being open indefinitely, it gives us a path forward that still allows a time for transition and healing that’s going to be very important.”
Flint is still a long way from putting its drinking water problems completely behind it.
The city has replaced about 2500 lead and galvanized service lines. The pipes are a prime source of the lead scale that could contaminate the drinking water.
However, there are another 18,000 or more pipes that need to be replaced. Replacing them is expected to take another two and half years at least.
And the ongoing replacement program is a double-edge sword. While old pipes are removed, ripping them out may loosen lead particles that can flow into the city’s water system.
And as the city deals with the infrastructure issues related to the water crisis, the long-term health problems related to high lead exposure are expected to linger for many years to come.