IT’S an environmental disaster of epic proportions and one that could take years to fix.
The City of Flint, a mostly blue-collar working-class city in the US state of Michigan, is in the midst of a water crisis.
The situation is so bad US President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency for the area, saying that if he was a parent living in Flint, he too “would be beside myself that my kid’s health could be at risk”.
Now it has emerged the residents, who, almost two years after the crisis began, are still paying up to $200 a month on water bills.
“I noticed the middle of July 2014 we were getting $150 water bills,” longtime Flint resident Tyrone Wooten told online website Mic. last week.
“We’ve been paying for it for so long. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Don’t flush the toilets sometimes; we don’t know how much that costs.’”
So how did it get to this?
Almost two years ago, the City of Flint decided it would switch its water supply from a Lake Huron, in nearby Detroit, to the main local river as part of a cost-saving exercise.
However, after the switch residents complained their water looked, smelled and tasted different.
It wasn’t long before some began complaining of headaches, loss of hair and in some cases a nasty rash.
But authorities did nothing about it.
According to reports, the Flint River wasn’t exactly pristine. The decision to use it as a major water supply was somewhat questionable.
The river water is highly corrosive and the city’s infrastructure very old.
A study from 2011 found that before water from the Flint River could be safe to use, it would need to be treated with an anti-corrosion agent, a measure that would have cost the state about $100 a day.
That measure could have prevented 90 per cent of the problems with Flint’s water,CCN reported.
Initially, the City of Flint told residents the smelly-brown water was still safe, telling residents all they had to do was boil it to rid it of any bacteria.
But in January 2015 local and state authorities finally admitted they had a problem on their hands.
Testing revealed Flint was in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act due to high levels of trihalomethanes, or TTHM — chemicals used to disinfect water that also increase the risk of cancer and can cause liver, kidney and central nervous system damage in humans.
Infants and children were also found to have higher levels of lead in their blood since switching to the Flint River source, Mic.reported.
These tests were carried out by a team from Virginia Tech which also found that in some extreme cases, the lead concentration was high enough to be considered “toxic waste”.
Ten people have also reportedly died from the pneumonia-like condition Legionnaire’s disease. Experts are still investigating possible links.
After months of complaints, protests and high profile condemnation, the City of Flint’s governor Rick Snyder announced in October last year that the City would switch back to the Detroit supply, but the damage had already been done.
He is also facing calls to resign over the way he handled the crisis.
Billions will need to be spent on new infrastructure as well as health care for the thousands affected by the compromised water supply.
Faced with mounting pressure to act, the Governor called in the Michigan National Guard to help distribute bottled water.
But allocations are slim. Households get one pack per day.
A series of emails released this week from 2014 and 2015 showed the lack of concern by authorities.
One email suggests that a day after doctors reported high levels of lead in local children, one of the governor’s top advisers told him city officials, not state officials, had to “deal with it”, the BBC reported.
The switch to a river water source was a money-saving move when the city was under state financial management.
“This s*** is criminal,” Kendrick Boyd, told Mic. “[Governor Snyder] deserves to go to prison for this. … They gave [former Detroit mayor] Kwame Kilpatrick 28 years for stealing money. This man just endangered lives. People die from this.”
“It’s not something they didn’t know. Before they switched our water back to Flint, the previous year they told us the river was condemned. Then they gave us the water to drink. So if this wasn’t a blatant or conscious decision, I don’t know what was.”
Boyd said that even after Flint switched back to the Detroit water, it still ran brown.
His mother Tekera explained she refused to drink it.
“It’s a fear of turning on your faucet water, that don’t make no sense,” Tekera said. “I refuse to put it in my mouth. My son filters the water, puts it in the microwave, and my grandson takes his bath with it. We shouldn’t have to go through all that.”
The Flint crisis has now made international headlines and captured the sympathy and support of celebrities with former locals filmmaker Michael Moore, actor Sandra Bernard and singer Cher pledging to help residents.
Just this week Cher recruited help from water company Icelandic Glacial to supply 180,000 bottles of water to the city.
And while efforts are being appreciated, it could be a long time before things return to normal, and clean, safe water is flowing through the taps of Flint.