Mom moved my two sisters and me to the appropriately named town of Flushing on the outskirts of Flint, Michigan, in 1980. My dad had just been killed in a plane crash, and she reasoned my Flint uncle would serve as a surrogate father. That didn’t happen; he was a good man, but he had two boys of his own. We arrived just in time to watch a city die, as the auto industry disintegrated like a Chevette hitting a wall. This was only good for Michael Moore.
It did give me unfettered access to the Flint River. My uncle was a dentist, and his mansion was built on the proceeds of General Motors’ generous medical plan. His house was adjacent to the Flushing Valley Golf Club, which bordered the river. The three months we stayed with him provided hours of creepy pleasure for a maladjusted teen. In pre-EPA days, factories had been dumping sludge and crud into the river for decades. Every day, my anti-nature walks brought new treasures: a dog carcass; the front grille of a K-car; and long, green bubbles of water that appeared to be living, malevolent, aquatic creatures with free will. Whenever I stuck my hand into the water to retrieve an abandoned tire or a shard of chain-link fence, my skin would come out a mottled crimson.
I moved away after graduating from Flint’s Catholic high school, where I was mugged at a neighboring 7-Eleven when my teacher sent me to buy him some cigarettes. The jobs kept moving away too. To me, Flint became a self-deprecating anecdote. It was the city that tried to rescue itself with an auto-themed amusement park (hilarious!), had one of the highest per-capita violent-crime rates in the country (scary!), frequently finished near the top of worst-cities-in-America lists (true!), and so on.
Some 30 years later, I can’t say I was surprised when my high school best friend, Gordon Young, a chronicler of Flint’s slide in his book Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, texted me that Flint, now in receivership and run by an apparatchik appointed by the austerity-mad GOP governor, was switching over from the Great Lakes to the Flint River for its drinking water. All to save some bucks. I thought this was preposterous. Only in Flint – a city that makes Youngstown, Ohio, look like Miami – could this be a viable solution.
I texted back: “Man, that seems like a bad idea.”
I had no clue.
By the fall of 2015, news began coming out of Flint about undrinkable water, kids getting sick and a stonewalling state government. I headed back to Flint for a week. I saw orange water running from a hydrant. I read FOIA’d e-mails that prove the city and state decided not to chemically treat Flint’s water, something required in every town, village and city in America. There was the woman whose water tested for lead at a toxic-waste level. This was after officials told her she was nuts, even though her daughter lost chunks of her hair in the shower, while her four-year-old son remained dangerously underweight and his skin became covered in red splotches any time it was exposed to the water. And I met a pediatrician who discovered that the lead levels of kids under five in Flint were dangerously elevated. She became physically ill when a state official called her deluded. I was told that the few million dollars saved by the city on Flint water would now cost hundreds of millions to repair ruined pipes.
The human damage is incalculable. Think of a mother waking in the middle of the night to make formula for her baby girl and unwittingly using liquid death as a mixer. Lead poisoning stunts IQs in children, many of whom in Flint are already traumatized by poverty, arson and rampant gunfire outside their doors. And for what? I hate to get all MSNBC-y, but this man-made disaster can be traced to one fact: Republicans not giving a shit about poor kids as much as they give a shit about the green of the bottom line.
Recently, Michigan was forced to declare a state of emergency in Flint. Some of the public servants involved have resigned. Now, the feds and the state are investigating what one water expert calls one of the greatest American drinking-water disasters he’s ever seen. In the coming months, we’ll know if those to blame were criminals or merely incompetent jackasses.
Flint doesn’t make me laugh anymore. It makes me want to punch someone in the face.
It seemed so promising back then. On April 25th, 2014 – coincidentally, the 34th anniversary of my family’s move to Flint – town leaders gathered at the cavernous Flint Water Treatment Plant for a celebration. After a countdown, then-Mayor Dayne Walling pushed a black button, and Flint’s water supply switched from a Detroit-based system to the Flint River.
There were some from the very beginning who thought this was a terrible idea, notably Flint’s congressman Rep. Dan Kildee. “My first thought was, ‘Are you kidding me?'” Kildee told me one morning in his office. He threw his palms up in the universal sign of exasperation. “We go from the freshest, deepest, coldest source of fresh water in North America, the Great Lakes, and we switch to the Flint River, which, historically, was an industrial sewer.”
Walling pushed the button, and the civic fathers of Vehicle City toasted with water from the Flint River. This would turn out to be the worst B-roll in political history when Walling unsuccessfully sought re-election in 2015.
“I was never briefed on the whole treatment plan, with someone explaining what had and hadn’t been done,” Walling told me at an inexplicably successful crepe restaurant (with a sign reading “unleaded” below its water station) in downtown Flint. He’d championed the downtown revitalization, and there was now a wine bar and some other amenities, but neighborhoods still had shattered streetlights. Walling is a Rhodes scholar, but insists he was bamboozled about Flint’s water and didn’t get enough information from the state overlords. “It’s time for people to stop treating Flint like shit,” Walling said.
The reason Walling didn’t get all the information is simple: He was only sort of mayor. Elected in 2009, Walling took over a city that had hemorrhaged half its population over the past 50 years, and once contemplated taking a part of the city off the grid to save on infrastructure costs. There was a $20 million budget deficit, as Flint was having difficulties meeting the pension requirements of union retirees who had worked in a more prosperous time and with a much larger tax base.
In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder, a white-haired accountant who ran on the slogan “one tough nerd,” took office. He quickly ordered the state to take over the management of cities like Detroit, which had become economically insolvent. Part of the state’s reasoning for the takeovers was that it needed to step in to provide for the safety and welfare of citizens. Walling and the city council were stripped of their power, and their salaries were cut. Not surprisingly, the powerless city council attracted less than stellar talent. In 2013, Flint elected two convicted felons and two others who had declared bankruptcy.
But who benefited? It seemed austerity and budget balancing meant more than citizen welfare as state-appointed managers slashed union benefits. The city cut 36 police officers from a force already stretched so thin that if a handful of officers were processing criminals, there were literally no cops on patrol.
“It’s like what’s going on in Greece,” says state Sen. Jim Ananich, who represents Flint and has a newborn he takes to his in-laws’ house in nearby Grand Blanc for baths. “How did we get to a place where we’ve cut everything? There’s nothing left but the books balancing. What the city looks like after that doesn’t matter. As long as there’s less red and more black, we’re in good shape.”
The transfer from Detroit to Flint water was just another bottom-line move. Flint was switching over in 2017 to a new pipeline that would serve the middle of the state with water from Lake Huron. (The city council cast a symbolic 7-1 vote in favor of the new pipeline. The state would later try to use this as a protective fig leaf to claim the city had approved drinking river water.) Detroit’s emergency manager asked the state to intervene in the switch, and when that failed, the utility told the city of Flint that its contract would be terminated in one year. The problem then was what to do between 2014 and 2017. Snyder’s Flint emergency managers – four cycled in and out like scrubs in an AAU hoops game – chose the Flint River rather than renegotiating with the petulant Detroit water utility. The initial results were not promising. One resident described her water to me as “the color of morning pee.” When an aide to Ananich complained to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, she says she was told, “It’s called the Clean Drinking Water Act, not the Tasty Drinking Water Act. We’re doing our job.” Acceptable water standards had become a fungible term in Flint.
On the south side of Flint in the summer of 2014, LeeAnne Walters had filled the above-ground pool that sat in the yard of her two-story home, with scraggly maple trees out front. She’d lived there for three years with her naval-reservist husband and their four kids, and they loved it. There were block parties and friendly neighbors; the children spent hours in the pool with their pals.
That summer was different. Her son Gavin would emerge from the water covered in red splotches. Doctors dismissed it as dermatitis and, briefly, scabies. But when the Walters hosted a pool party and everyone emerged red and inflamed, she knew it wasn’t just her son. On another day, she heard her 18-year-old daughter, Kaylie, screaming from the shower: “My hair is falling out in clumps!”
It made Walters think about her own thinning auburn hair. She did a survey of her brood – everyone was losing hair. Her water stank and was rust-colored. It was around that time that the city had to issue an E. coli warning, urging all residents to boil their water.
I met Walters in November. She wasn’t at her house the first time I stopped by, so I drove around the block and watched a Flint Water Department truck let a hydrant pump out gallons of orange water. “We’re just cleaning the pipes,” said the worker cheerfully. When I met Walters, she wore a hoodie and faded jeans. She’d been a medical assistant before becoming a full-time mom. She was struggling to understand why the government would do this to her and her family. She wasn’t an activist before, but circumstances had changed.
“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I started calling the EPA, looking up water on the Internet,” Walters told me as she fumbled with an unlit cigarette. “I had no idea how my life was going to change.”
This is where it gets complicated in a profoundly stupid way. To fight off concerning levels of fecal coliform and E. coli, the city kicked up the amount of chlorine pumped into the water system in the fall of 2014. This resulted in Flint water testing for an unacceptable level of total trihalomethanes (TTHM), a contaminant composed of four chemicals that come together when heavily treated water mingles with debris and garbage in a water system. Flint citizens went from orange water to complaining that their skin was on fire after showers. Still, the city said the water was safe, as long as you were not very young, elderly or had a severely compromised immune system.
An old friend disagreed, but for a different reason. General Motors announced it was discontinuing use of Flint water in one of its plants, because the high level of chlorides found in the polluted Flint River could corrode engine parts. So while the state was saying the water was still safe to drink, GM was saying it wasn’t safe to be used on car pistons.
Walters and the rest of Flint were told it was all going to be OK. One of the recommendations was that residents should allow their water to run for 20 minutes to flush out the TTHM. This was met with much grumbling, but consent, in a city where water bills can be higher than mortgage payments.
In January 2015, Walters and a few dozen other citizens attended a hearing with Flint Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose. She showed Ambrose plastic bottles with her orange water. He just shook his head and said there was no way the water came from Flint.
Walters was livid. Her daughter whispered to Melissa Mays, another concerned Flint mother, “I think she’s gonna hit him!” Mays, a feisty tattooed woman, told me, “They called her a liar and an idiot.” The two soon partnered on a crusade to figure out what the hell was in their water.
The whole Walters family had been ill since December 2014, but LeeAnne was particularly concerned about her four-year-old Gavin, who already suffered with autoimmune issues and was 10 pounds lighter than his twin brother, Garrett. His skin turned a fiery red every time it came into contact with Flint water. By this time, she forbade her kids from drinking the water. She started buying dozens of gallons of bottled water for cooking and instated a five-minute-shower rule.
Walters called the city. After some hemming and hawing, they sent over a crew to test the water. The inspector left her an urgent voicemail one night telling her not to use the water until they talked. She called the next morning, and the inspector told her that her water came back with 104 parts per billion of lead. This was nearly seven times above the federal-action level of 15 ppb. The inspector recommended running the water for nearly a half-hour before using it, and he came back two weeks later. This time, Walters’ water tested at 397. Panicked, she got Gavin and the rest of her family tested for lead poisoning. No level of lead is considered safe, but anything more than 5 micrograms per deciliter in the blood is considered highly damaging. Gavin’s came back at 6.5.
Walters told me the story with her hands clasped together so tightly I could see her knuckles whitening. We went out on the porch so she could smoke. The city offered to fix her pipes and in return asked her to sign a no-harm agreement. Appalled by the horse trading over her kid’s health, she fired back.
“I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?'” Walters told me with a sneer. “How do you put a price tag on your son? Your child being poisoned?”
Later, when we said goodbye, there was guilt in her eyes.
“You wonder what, as a mom, you could have done differently,” Walters said, wiping away tears.
Between interviews, I piloted my rental car through broken neighborhoods where my friends and I would buy beer at 16 from hypercompetitive liquor stores – the number of liquor licenses available lingers from the days when Flint had 50,000 more residents. I took a wrong turn and found myself down by the river, where some middle-aged men were fishing. I met two black men in overalls and with few teeth. They didn’t want to give me their names because they were fishing without licenses. The older one said, “I’ve been fishing here for years, but I ain’t ever eaten anything I’ve caught. There’s something not right with the water.” He showed me a giant pike he had caught that was flapping around in a white bucket without much enthusiasm. Its eyes were oversize and bulging, looking like Blinky, the radioactive fish caught outside the nuclear reactor on The Simpsons. But his friend was less concerned. “If you’re hungry, you’ll eat anything.” He smiled through his twisted teeth. “I mean, we’re drinking out of it, might as well eat out of it.”
After the initial lead readings came back, Walters became desperate. She began calling everyone from activists to random people at the regional office of the EPA. She got the attention of an EPA water expert named Miguel Del Toral, who came to her house, ran more tests and came to a startling conclusion. The water Flint used to buy from Detroit contained orthophosphate, a chemical used to control lead and copper levels in the drinking water. Del Toral wrote that once Flint changed to river water, “the orthophosphate treatment for lead and copper control was not continued.” Del Toral warned that there was no chemical barrier to keep lead and copper from infiltrating Flint residents’ drinking water. In plain English, Flint lacked a corrosion-control plan, something every water system in America has been required to have for years. To make matters worse, the water from the Flint River contained eight times more chloride than Detroit water. Chloride is a corrosive compound that causes pipes to rust and leach. At a time when Flint water needed more corrosion control than ever, it was getting none.
Walters gave the Del Toral document to the Michigan ACLU, which released it to the press, but it only drew attention from Michigan Radio. There was a reason for this: All of official Michigan denied there was a problem. In February, the EPA asked the MDEQ directly if the state was practicing corrosion control. MDEQ staffer Stephen Busch wrote back: “[Flint] has an optimized Corrosion Control Program [and] conducts quarterly Water Quality Parameter monitoring at 25 sites and has not had any unusual results.”
This wasn’t true; there was no corrosion control. Still, the state of Michigan launched a counteroffensive essentially calling anyone with concerns about Flint water a crank. “Let me start here – anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax,” said Brad Wurfel, spokesman for MDEQ. (He later described Del Toral as a “rogue employee.”)
Internally, the MDEQ seemed more annoyed than concerned. In July, the ACLU’s Curt Guyette pushed for more details, and an MDEQ staffer e-mailed co-workers saying of the Flint situation, “Apparently it’s going to be a thing now.”
Eventually, the MDEQ admitted the city hadn’t been doing any corrosion control with Flint’s water, and no one seemed overly concerned. Wurfel essentially said they didn’t have to address it for a year. “You know, if I handed you a bag of chocolate chips and a sack of flour and said, ‘Make chocolate-chip cookies,’ we’d still need a recipe,” Wurfel told Michigan Radio. “They need to get the results from that testing to understand how much of what to put in the water to address the water chemistry.”
Apparently, Flint’s citizens needed to keep drinking poisoned water for a year before the state could figure out how to unpoison their water.
I drove over to the Flint Water Plant with Scott Atkinson, a friend and, until recently, a reporter at The Flint Journal, the local paper that had heartily endorsed the switch to Flint River water two years ago. The plant was off Dort Highway, a desolate slice of Flint that I was warned to avoid as a teenager. The giant stone building seemed unmanned. We walked in on a weekday afternoon and could have pushed a series of buttons and knobs and created God knows what kind of ecological havoc. We found the main office, but it was empty. There was a cardboard box with plastic bottles, instructions on how to test your water at home and a number to call for more information. I grabbed a bottle and started to head out when I heard a radio playing behind a closed door.
Here in Flint, even the public employees seem to have gone into hiding.
Frustrated by the lack of response from the state and city, Walters kept reaching out to anyone she thought could help her family. That April, she contacted Dr. Marc Edwards, a water-treatment expert who teaches at Virginia Tech and has received a MacArthur genius grant. She had heard of Edwards’ work over the past decade on lead contamination in Washington, D.C.’s water and laid out what she was going through. That spring, he tested Walters’ water repeatedly as a sort of ground zero for lead poisoning. The results were frightening. While the state downplayed the poison levels in Walters’ house through an assortment of tricks, including taking a sample at a trickle rather than a steady flow, Edwards took 30 samples with steady water flow. The average came in at 2,300 ppb, and one came in at a nearly unbelievable 13,500, well above the EPA standard for toxic waste.
In August, Walters told Edwards that she and other activists had traveled to Lansing, the state capital, where MDEQ staffers had stonewalled them and dismissed their concerns. Edwards became so angry that he and four research assistants drove from Blacksburg, Virginia, to Michigan. They began working with Walters and Flint citizens to collect samples of water for testing and acquired 280 samples.
Edwards’ analysis determined that 40 percent of Flint homes had tested over acceptable levels. He joined a press conference on the lawn outside City Hall and begged Flint citizens not to drink their water. The MDEQ spokesman Wurfel uttered another gem, decrying the research and saying, “[Edwards] specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go. Nobody should be surprised when the rabbit comes out of the hat.”
The state and city did their own testing. They managed to come up with only 71 samples. Originally, the city came in above federally accepted levels, but then the MDEQ instructed Flint to eliminate two of the highest test scores on technicalities. One was LeeAnne Walters’ house. The reason? She used a water filter.
“It’s amazing how hard they had to work to leave people in harm’s way and all the lies they told,” Edwards said to me a few weeks later, after his research had been vindicated. He’s taken Flint on as a cause, and much of the information that’s come to light came from FOIA requests made by Edwards. “We will throw a landlord in jail in this country if they do not disclose a lead-paint hazard in an apartment. It’s that simple.” He sighed and tried to maintain an even tone, but was unsuccessful. “Here, these fuckers were working overtime to cover this up and to keep kids drinking.”
In the end, it was the kids of Flint that finally made the state of Michigan crumble. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, an Iraqi-American, is the director of the pediatric residency program at Flint’s Hurley Hospital. On a typical shit-cold Michigan winter afternoon, she took me for lunch at a new farmers’ market that had opened below her equally new pediatric clinic. Its location wasn’t a coincidence; many of Flint’s residents can’t afford cars, so Hanna-Attisha had pushed for the clinic to be next to the central bus station and other state offices that serve underprivileged children. “If they can make just one stop, it increases the chances they use all the services,” she told me as she mussed with the hair of one of her clinic’s patients.
Hanna-Attisha had more than enough work and didn’t need to get involved in the water crisis. A majority of Flint’s kids are considered to be at-risk because of abandonment, high crime and lack of food. “A favorite question that we like to ask in pediatrics is, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?'” Hanna-Attisha told me. “You have kids saying, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be Superman,’ ‘I wanna be a ballerina.’ And so many of our kids just stare at you because they just don’t have hope. They have no hope.”
Last August, Hanna-Attisha had a dinner party. She invited a former EPA staffer who briefed her on Edwards’ findings. Soon, Hanna-Attisha was pulling recent blood tests at Hurley, Flint’s main hospital, and comparing them to the previous year’s.
“When pediatricians hear about lead, we freak out,” Hanna-Attisha told me. “We absolutely freak out, because we know the kind of irreversible lifetime multigenerational impact.” You can address the damage, she said, but it will always be there.
Prior to the switch-over, 2.1 percent of kids tested at elevated lead levels. In tests administered between January and September 2015, the number spiked to 4 percent and to more than 6 percent in Flint’s worst-effected neighborhoods. She checked and rechecked the numbers before going public in September. The state’s reaction was predictable. Wurfel said her research didn’t match the state’s and was “unfortunate” in a time of “near hysteria.”
When Hanna-Attisha went home to her own two children, she felt physically ill and on the verge of tears. “I was trembling. As a scientist, you’re always paranoid, so you check and double-check.” She exhaled quietly. “But the numbers didn’t lie.”
Then something unexpected happened. After a few days, the state admitted that both Edwards’ and Hanna-Attisha’s findings had raised legitimate issues. It announced in October a million-dollar plan to provide filters for residents of Flint. Wurfel even privately apologized to Hanna-Attisha.
Not that the residents of Flint were done being abused. In an act of ballsiness, the state announced that Flint would switch back to its original Detroit water system at a cost of $12 million, but Flint would have to pay $2 million of that cost, demolishing its discretionary budget for the rest of the year.
In November, Dayne Walling lost his bid for re-election, largely because of the B-roll video of him pushing the button that set off the chain of events. It might be unfair, but Flint needed a scapegoat, and Walling’s name was on the ballot.
Over the winter, e-mails obtained through FOIA requests by Edwards revealed that the problem with Flint’s water could have been addressed months earlier if the state hadn’t ignored red flags raised by administration officials. Before the new year, Snyder would accept the resignations of Wurfel and MDEQ head Dan Wyant. Wurfel, in hindsight, says he would have handled things very differently. “I regret this situation and my role in it,” he said. “Deeply. I’m a father to a toddler, and I’ve had to look at him and imagine how I’d feel countless times. I’ll carry that with me for the rest of my life.” Edwards says corrosion control would have cost the state of Michigan $80 to $100 a day.
On January 11th, Gov. Rick Snyder arrived in Flint to face a furious city. He held a press conference at City Hall, in the same room where the powerless Flint City Council meets. The room looks like the auditorium of a high school you would never want your children to attend. It is dotted with broken chairs that, rather than having been repaired, are securely labeled with sheets of paper reading “broken chair.” On more than one occasion, including on new Mayor Karen Weaver’s inauguration day, I saw a bottled-water truck parked outside the building.
Outside the room, protesters, including Melissa Mays, shouted for the governor’s resignation and waved gallon jugs of what looked like urine but was actually water that came from their kitchen taps. A television reporter asked the crucial question: “Some are calling for your arrest, others are calling you a potential murderer. How can you in good conscience not have done greater due diligence?”
Snyder gave a standard mea culpa: “I’ve apologized for what’s going on with the state and I am responsible for state government.” He went on to say he wished none of this had happened. Snyder noted that he didn’t know the seriousness of the situation until October.
For that to be true, he’d have to have not read his e-mail. In July, his chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, wrote: “I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint…. These folks are scared and worried about health impacts, and they are basically getting blown off by us.” (Not that Muchmore was a friend of Flint. In a September e-mail, he referred to water activists as the “anti-everything group.”)
Snyder forged on, and speaking in a high, nasal voice, pledged all the state’s resources to deal with the problem. (He had already asked President Obama to declare Flint a federal disaster area, something Weaver had been asking for since before her inaugural speech that I attended in November.) But there were signs that his administration was still in denial. First, a bureaucrat mentioned that only 43 Flint citizens had tested positive for lead poisoning. Then, Eden Wells, the chief medical officer for the state, started talking about how lead comes from many sources and filibustered about soil and paint chips. (This led Weaver to move back to the microphone and correct the fantasy: “Today, it is about the lead in the water.”) Finally, the governor’s staff tried to shift some blame to old faucets at Flint schools. Standing in the second row behind Snyder, Hanna-Attisha just shook her head.
“They still really don’t get it,” she told me after the press conference. “They’ve only tested 43 because we’ve done outreach, and lead poisoning in the blood has a short half-life. There’s no way of knowing how many people were affected before we started making noise.” She fired off an e-mail to the governor’s staff, telling them if they wanted to start rebuilding the trust of the people of Flint, this wasn’t the way to do it.
That Friday, 150 protesters traveled to Lansing and stormed Snyder’s office, calling for his resignation and criminal prosecution. (Snyder did not respond to requests for comment on this story.) The same afternoon, Michigan State Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican crony of Snyder’s, announced he was launching an investigation into the water crisis. “The purpose of the investigation is to determine what, if any, Michigan laws were violated in the process that resulted in the contamination crisis,” Schuette said in a press release.
His announcement was met with rolled eyes from Flint citizens. Schuette’s response was likely a reaction to the announcement the previous week that the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan was working with the EPA on a Flint investigation. (The feds provided no details of the scope of their probe.) Way back in September, state Rep. Sheldon Neeley had asked Schuette to get involved and start an investigation. Schuette didn’t get back to him until shortly before Christmas, saying there were plenty of folks already looking into the Flint water crisis. Schuette only reversed course as pressure mounted and his political future came into question.
“Without fear or favor, I will carry out my responsibility to enforce the laws meant to protect Michigan families and represent the citizens of Flint,” he said.
Did I mention Bill Schuette wants to be Michigan’s next Republican governor?
Out on the streets, Flint now looks like a benevolently occupied city, which seems to have been Snyder’s goal when he took over the town back in 2011. National Guardsmen working out of Flint firehouses handed out cases of water. Each firehouse was getting truckloads of water every day. They were also handing out filters, one per household, and were providing testing kits. On the news, there was video of soldiers distributing water in Flint’s poorest neighborhoods, like the Marines did in Iraq after the fall of Saddam.
The government had finally mobilized. President Obama was sending $80 million in federal aid. There were signs that Snyder was finally starting to get it, albeit a year too late. On January 19th, he gave his State of the State address, saying, “I am sorry, and I will fix it.” He offered Flint $28 million in relief. He released his e-mails on the water crisis, and all of Flint began reading, hoping to pinpoint exactly when his botching of the crisis began.
The EPA also fell on its sword, suggesting it should have pushed the state to more aggressively attack the poisoned water. “Our first priority is to make sure the water in Flint is safe, but we also must look at what the agency could have done differently,” the EPA said in a statement. The EPA’s regional administrator, Susan Hedman, resigned a few days later.
Everyone was working together. It was beautiful until you thought about how long it had taken. We were now 600 days out from when Flint changed its water. While the water has been switched back to Detroit’s system, no one knows when lead will stop leaching from the pipes, or if it already has. One proposed solution is digging up the decrepit pipes across the city and repairing or replacing them. The cost could run from the millions to $1.5 billion, according to Weaver. And that’s if the city and state can find them. The listing of which homes get their water from modern pipes and which still use lead pipes is kept on 45,000 index cards at the Flint Department of Public Works.
What happens to Snyder and his underlings is an open question. In January, Flint residents filed multiple class-action suits against the governor and the state for exposing them to dangerous drinking water. Political blunders aside, the human costs are permanent and unforgivable. The damage to kids will be comprehensive and last a generation; the effect on learning rates, crime and other social ills is incalculable.
“You can’t quantify the fear you see in the mothers’ faces,” says Hanna-Attisha. “They’re just petrified what is going to happen to their kids in 10 years.”
Flint has seen a spike in the number of cases of Legionnaires’ disease, a severe type of pneumonia usually spread by bacteria in water vapor. The number of cases in Genesee County, Flint’s home, has gone from six to 13 a year to 87 from June 2014 to November 2015, roughly the same time Flint began using water from the Flint River. There have been 10 deaths.
Earlier in the fall, Congressman Kildee traveled to New York to hear the pope speak before the United Nations’ General Assembly. He heard the pontiff say that every human being should have access to clean drinking water. Kildee’s heart sank.
“I’m a citizen of the United States,” he told me, “the richest country on the planet, at the richest moment in its history, and what the pope was referring to were poor children in Africa, not realizing that my kids in Flint don’t have clean drinking water.”
Meanwhile, Hanna-Attisha has been losing sleep for months. When she dreams, she dreams of lead, the facts and figures of her studies spinning around in her brain. She spends her days thinking of a decade from now, when more Flint kids have ADD and more are introduced to the wrong side of the juvenile-court system. “We have to do the best for them we can,” says Hanna-Attisha. “It’s just a nightmare.”
For Walters, the governor’s apology was too little, too late. “I’m always going to wonder, if there’s a problem with my kids, if it’s because I let them drink that water,” she told me as she loaded some garbage bags of her belongings into her nephew’s truck outside her home.
She wasn’t at Snyder’s press conference. You see, LeeAnne Walters was done. She moved her family to Virginia, putting Flint in the rearview mirror.
I couldn’t blame her.