In April 2014, the fateful decision was made to change Flint's drinking water source to the Flint River.
That led to what is known world-wide as the Flint water disaster.
But it took activist citizens like Lee Anne Walters working with Virginia Tech engineer Marc Edwards to rip apart layers of denial and stonewalling from state and Environmental Protection Agency officials. In 2001, Edwards proved that people in Washington D.C. were drinking lead-poisoned water after the city changed water treatment chemicals. So, when Walters and other worried Flint residents called, he answered. They joined us today, a year after the city officially declared a state of emergency.
Like so many in Flint, Walters and her family began having health problems just weeks after the water switch. Hair and eyelashes falling out. Rashes. Her little boy suffered abdominal pain, nausea and headaches.And by December 2014, the family's tap water was brown.
When Walters called the city to ask about the discolored water, she was told the system was being winterized.
The discolored water became “almost a daily occurrence” by the middle of January 2015, but it took a lot of kicking and screaming to get the city to admit there was anything wrong.
“We were going into city council meetings by this point to figure out what was going on and being told we were liars, we were stupid, that this wasn’t our water,” Walters said.
Walters got in touch with Edwards, who helped her sample the water in her home. When the results showed lead concentrations at more than 1,000 times the acceptable level, Edwards said, “We thought maybe there was a mistake.”
“But the next day we re-ran it. It was not a mistake,” he said. “We had probably the worst case of sustained elevated lead in water I’d ever encountered.”
Edwards described the pattern of response from officials in Flint, in Lansing and from the Environmental Protection Agency as “classic bureaucratic arrogance.”
“The city, state and EPA were all horrible, and together they were beyond that,” he said. “But you know, I must say since we showed it was a system-wide problem … it’s been the exact opposite. In general the city, state and EPA have done a fantastic job and literally since October, the primary health threat has been eliminated.”
Edwards helped uncover a similar situation in Washington, D.C. in 2003. But the response from officials in D.C. was far worse than what we’ve seen in Flint.
“D.C. was horrible because they got away with it completely,” he said. “There was no one to question them. They had told a horrific lie to cover up the harm and give themselves rewards and keep their jobs so that another D.C., which happened in Flint, was inevitable.”
But when Flint residents learned their water contained dangerous amounts of lead, they didn’t take it lying down.
“They messed with the wrong city. They messed with the wrong people,” Edwards said.
Edwards told us the country owes Flint a debt of gratitude for bringing the issue of lead contamination to light and pushing other communities to take a more serious look at their water supplies.
“Literally every rock we’ve turned over in major cities found high levels of lead in the water. This is what we’ve been screaming about for 10 years, and frankly no one would have cared had not Flint residents and this critical mass of moral courage exposed this problem,” he said.
One year out from the official declaration of emergency, Walters told us Flint residents still don’t trust the government.
“There’s no trust there at all. None of that trust has been won back,” she said.
On January 10, the EPA will be holding a meeting in Chicago that could result in a declaration that the lead levels in Flint water are officially under the federal limit.
According to Edwards, at this point Flint’s water is “probably as good or better than” most other urban cities around the country.
“One of the things we’ve learned from Flint is that probably never again in this country will we be able to say that water from a lead pipe is safe,” he said. “Flint is going to be an example, hopefully a good example, of how to do corrosion control right in the future and protect the population from elevated lead in water.”
In our conversation above, Edwards and Walters talk more about their roles in the Flint water crisis and how their personal and professional lives have been affected.
Nowadays, Walters said she works on water problems “pretty much 24/7.”
“It has completely turned my life upside down,” she said. “If you’d have said to me five years ago this would be my life, I would have laughed in your face.”
“I’ve met a lot of amazing people along the way. I’ve taught myself a tremendous amount, I’ve been taught a tremendous amount. I’ve had the greatest mentors in Marc and Miguel [del Toral], I couldn’t ask for better mentors than this.”
Edwards told us working with Walters has been “inspirational.”
“She had figured out how to protect her family, and she has fought ever since to protect children, other people’s children, not only in Flint but around the country, and she’s done it without a penny of compensation,” he said.
He told us he’s tried to get Walters some funding from the EPA because of the work she and other Flint residents have been doing to monitor water quality, but she’s refused to accept any money because she doesn’t want to appear to have a conflict of interest.
“I see my colleagues that are worried about their research money, and here’s this amazing woman, not financially well off, but has such high standards of integrity, and, you know, personally I just found this whole story so inspirational,” he said.
Once the word began to spread about the crisis in Flint, a lot of big names came to the city to draw attention and raise support. Some have accused politicians of attempting to turn the water crisis into a partisan issue, using Flint as little more than a backdrop throughout the campaign season.
“I was disgusted by it,” Walters said. “If we expect Congress to work bipartisan, why would you not expect that in the city that needs the greatest amount of help?”
But Edwards told us there’s a silver lining here.
“It’s amazing once this environmental injustice was exposed just how many people did care,” he said. “People tend to overlook that your first inclination is to point to the other side, the other tribe, as at fault, when in reality it was career civil servants who messed this problem up in a culture created nationally by the U.S. EPA.”
“So my faith has been restored, oddly enough, even in politicians. That’s how bad Flint was,” he said.
While progress has been made, Walters reminded us there’s still a lot of work to do, particularly concerning the “forgotten community” of adults whose health has been affected by the water crisis.
“There are people that are financially struggling because of what was done to them, and not getting any assistance,” she said. “I appreciate what’s being done as far as the funding that has come through now, but living through it day to day and being in it, waiting a year for it doesn’t seem right.”
“I understand it was declared a manmade disaster, but it was not at our hands. If it was a natural disaster the funding would have come in a lot sooner and there would have been more assistance than what was given. I think that was what really hurt us and I think that’s something that needs to be addressed going forward.”
The EPA might declare Flint water is technically safe to drink at their Chicago meeting next month, but Edwards doesn’t want to jump to conclusions.
“From every dimension of performance, the water quality is just so dramatically improved, but again, recognizing the bar has been set very, very high here, it’s not a decision I’m going to make. It’s going to require a consensus that this is the way to go,” he said.
Even if the EPA declares Flint water safe, Walters told us residents will likely be hesitant to believe it.
“I don’t trust the water anywhere, so I don’t think that people are going to get over that easily,” she said. “We’re not done yet because the Lead and Copper Rule isn’t fixed. We still have a huge battle in front of us.”
“Michigan is now headed towards having the toughest Lead and Copper Rule in the world, and hopefully other states will adopt that,” Edwards told us.
Walters hopes that some of the distrust between citizens and their government will be repaired, but for some, herself included, these wounds are deep.
“Flint was severely damaging to us,” she said. “I will never trust a water source again just because I’m told to.”