10 Years After Crisis, Flint Is Still Fighting for Clean Water

Published Apr 25, 2024

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Clean Water

A decade after community activists discovered lead in Flint’s pipes, residents are still fighting for clean, affordable water for all.

A decade after community activists discovered lead in Flint’s pipes, residents are still fighting for clean, affordable water for all.

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the day when the City of Flint switched its water source to the Flint River, sparking a lead-in-water crisis that would poison residents for years to come. 

In 2014, Flint, Michigan was governed by a State-imposed emergency manager, effectively suspending local democracy, including over the water system. State-imposed officials claimed the switch to the Flint River would save the City money. Instead, it cost many residents their health and even their lives. Ten years later, Flint still doesn’t have water justice.

What happened in Flint embodies many facets of our water problems nationwide. The United Nations has long recognized a human right to water, but the U.S. has failed to deliver. For many families across the country, water is dangerously contaminated, inaccessible, and unaffordable. Moreover, this failure is disparately harming majority-Black, Brown, and low-income communities.

Many residents lack local control over their water system because of private ownership or state takeovers, as happened in Flint. There, the takeover stripped away decision-making power from local Black elected officials and effectively disenfranchised Black voters in Michigan.

At the time, Food & Water Watch was working on water affordability issues in the state. When we heard about the crisis in Flint, we jumped into action, supporting the local groups demanding clean water and fighting government pushback. 

Now, thanks to grassroots groups’ unrelenting activism, Flint has seen some changes. But residents are still fighting for accountability from companies and government officials, and for clean, affordable water. Many still don’t drink from their taps.

In honor of the anniversary, we spoke with Flint resident and activist Melissa Mays, founder of Water You Fighting For. In this interview, she details the history of the water crisis, how it’s still affecting residents, and what they’re still fighting for. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

“They Didn’t Treat the Water to Prevent It From Eating Our Pipes and Our Bodies.”

How did the water problems in Flint start, and how did you get involved in organizing to get answers?

In 2014, the State Emergency manager switched our water to the Flint River to put us on more privatized pipelines. He tried to say, “Well, Flint’s broke, and Detroit’s upping the rates and making it unaffordable,” which Food & Water Watch had actually found out was false.

[Editor’s note: Our 2015 rate survey even found that Flint had the highest water prices among the 500 largest systems nationwide. This was largely due to the Emergency Manager hiking rates to extract water revenues for other purposes.]

He decided to cut us off from Detroit and then put us on the Flint River. Even though the whole county shares a water system, Flint was the only one that had its water switched. The other communities, mostly white and more affluent, were not switched. 

In May of 2014, we failed our first safe drinking water test for disinfection byproducts that cause cancer. People were almost immediately having discolored water. It was so harsh, it was more corrosive and caustic, and they didn’t put any treatments. They didn’t treat the water to prevent it from eating our pipes and our bodies. 

My family didn’t have discolored water, and we didn’t know at the time that lead and several other contaminants don’t have a taste, color, or odor. We just felt lucky that we didn’t have brown water. Little did I know, as I was handing my kids the clear water, I was poisoning them

In January of 2015, we received a letter in the mail saying, “By the way, for the previous nine months, your water has been contaminated with a cancer-causing disinfection byproduct. You might want to check with your doctor before consuming the water.”

So in January, I went to my first protest, and I’d never been to a protest before. I had never been an activist. I managed bands and put on shows; I was in PR and marketing. 

But I realized there that even though we were different ages, races, and genders and lived in different parts of town, most people were having rashes, hair loss, breathing problems. We had people with cancer, people with miscarriages, pets that had died. So I started collecting information then. 

In January 2015, I was connected with [water quality expert] Bob Bowcock. I took him through our water treatment plant, and he started realizing that there wasn’t the proper equipment for corrosion control. He said, “Look, orange and brown water means iron corrosion, which isn’t super dangerous, except for the fact that it feeds bacteria.” 

We had found out that there were major E. coli breakouts in 2014 and 2015. What we didn’t know until later was that there was an ongoing Legionnaires’ outbreak, and Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’, feeds off of iron corrosion. 

Then Bob suggested that we start testing for lead and copper. We found at the end of February 2015 that there was lead in several of the samples that we had collected. At that time, it was 104 parts per billion at a residence. 

“People Were Getting $200, $300-a-Month Water Bills and Not Being Able to Drink It.”

What was the government response like while you were investigating this?

Residents were already calling the EPA. They were already calling the Attorney General’s office and nobody was saying anything to us. Officials were trying to make it seem like we were just overreacting. 

So my husband and I came up with “Water You Fighting For” and put up a website where we could put all this research we started finding, since the City and State weren’t telling us the truth. 

And when we found the lead, we did a press conference; they cut us off and refused to talk about lead. So we went door to door and we hung door hangers on people’s homes, warning them. We started mapping it to show it wasn’t just one neighborhood or one house, and we took it to the Governor’s office twice. 

They also didn’t want to believe us because our rates were so high. People were getting two-, three-hundred-dollar-a-month water bills for all this and not being able to drink it. Flint has some of the highest rates in the United States for water; eight times the national average. 

Once you discovered the lead and all the other issues with the water, how did you have to fight to get things fixed?

We worked to get a petition out through Food & Water Watch to get us off the Flint River. We were trying to get back on the Detroit water system, which we finally did in October of 2015. However, by that time, it was too late. Our infrastructure was just destroyed. It was estimated that to replace it all was going to cost $1.5 billion. We knew it didn’t have to be that much because the city had shrunk since all that infrastructure was first built.

So we filed lawsuits in January of 2016 to get our lead service lines replaced. I’m a named plaintiff in the class action suit Mays v. Snyder, as well as a named plaintiff in Concerned Pastors for Social Action v. Khouri, against the State of Michigan and the City of Flint.

During this time, we also fought to get a new mayor in. She ran saying, I’m a doctor, I’m going to declare a State of Emergency because this is a public health emergency.

She fought for that and got it, even though she was warned and told, Don’t you dare do that; you’re gonna make the governor upset. Because when she declared it locally, it had to go to the county, then to the state, and then it had to go federal. 

When the federal state of emergency was declared, that’s when the world found out that the people of Flint aren’t just a bunch of crazy poor and Black folks wanting something for free. That there was actually a serious problem here. Then that woke them up to realizing oh, there’s a serious problem everywhere. 

Flint was the leader in so many things — housing rights, civil rights, the right to organize a union, the right to a sit-down strike. And now we’re the ones saying, “Wake up, your water might be bad,” since we’ve been ignoring it as a country for a good century or so. 

“We Don’t Want More Communities Like Us. So We Continue to Fight.”

As you know, it’s been 10 years since the initial switch to the Flint River. What is the state of the crisis now? How is it still impacting residents?

They’re just trying to sweep this under the rug and say Flint’s all better, but we’re not.

And it’s not just about the lead. Because the water was so corrosive — they didn’t treat it or put corrosion control to protect the pipes from the water and the water from the pipes — the interior plumbing in our homes is crumbling and rupturing. Our mains in the street are rupturing. That then of course means the cost of our water goes up, and the quality drops because you can’t keep proper treatment.

We’re still having to buy people bottled water because we’re still having main breaks. Last summer, there was a home that tested over 14,000 parts per billion of lead. And 5,000 is hazardous waste. The only safe level is zero. But as long as the pipes remain, that’s gonna happen. 

We still have a Legionnaires’ outbreak; we still have people getting bacterial pneumonia in the summertime. We still have discolored water; the water still smells bad. We’re exhausted, we’re tired, most of us are sick. We’ve been through cancers, we’ve been through loss, we’ve been through all of this.

However, Flint residents are some of the toughest, most heart-filled, amazing folks you’re ever going to meet. They’re still taking care of one another, they’re still reporting when things are bad with the water. They’re still voting people in and out, they’re still trying to get the right folks to look out for us. And we have regular folks running for office to try to make that happen. 

We’re hoping to set that good example and make that the precedent — that if you poison a community, they’re gonna fight back and then hopefully, polluters get punished. And we don’t want more communities like us. So we continue to fight. 

“When People No Longer Have a Say Over Their Drinking Water, There’s No Recourse to Fight Back. “

What are you and other residents still pushing for?

We’ve got a lot of the service lines replaced because of our lawsuit, which we won in 2017. But this current mayor that we have, he put a stop to everything. We’re still thousands of homes from being finished, and we were supposed to be finished by 2020. Though, we recently held the City of Flint in contempt of federal court for not finishing the pipes like they were supposed to. And we’re still pushing because nobody’s received a penny from the class action lawsuits. 

The federal Lead and Copper Rule and the Safe Drinking Water Act are extremely outdated, so we’ve been working on updating those. We got the state law strengthened in 2018, but we’re still waiting for that to be rolled out and implemented properly. 

As these laws get strengthened, people start testing their water, and they’re realizing it’s in more communities. So Flint residents have been helping people all over the country and in other countries with their water quality issues. We’re helping them fight privatization and fight for their right to water. 

We’re also still fighting for proper healthcare funding because we were able to get a Medicaid expansion for kids up to age 21, but the poisoning continues past that. And it’s kind of hard to take care of directly impacted children when their caretakers — their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles — are all sick and you don’t have proper healthcare. 

You’ve worked with Food & Water Watch to advocate for the WATER Act, which would designate federal funding to repair our country’s failing water infrastructure. Why is this important for Flint and communities around the country?

First of all, this country has the money. We can spend how many trillions on fighter jets and on the military — not unfortunately, on our veterans and our service people, though — yet we can’t spend trillions on drinking water?

There are too many cities and states that just do not have the budget. They do not have the funding, especially since over the years, states —even Michigan — have had tax breaks for the wealthy. There are corporations out there that are not paying their taxes. There are polluters that are not paying fines and not paying taxes. And so there’s no money for states to be able to grant out to people. 

We need federal funding and we need federal oversight. Because in situations like Flint, where the state is responsible, we can’t really trust that the state is going to do what’s right by us. We need help. You can’t have the fox watching the henhouse and then saying everything’s fine. 

And privatizing our water systems is not the answer. Because as soon as the voice gets lost, when people no longer have a say over their drinking water, they get served up whatever, and there’s no recourse to fight back. 

Join the fight with cities like Flint! Tell your representatives to support urgently needed water funding through the WATER Act.

“It’s a Long Fight, and We Could Still Use the Help.”

What would you want people around the country to know about Flint and water issues?

It’s a long fight, and we could still use the help. Every time we think something’s going well, this machine tries to pull the rug out from underneath us. Or they say, “Okay, well, this is good enough, this is all you get.” 

So it’s basically as it always has been — the poor and poisoned standing up against corruption, and standing up for one another, and with one another.

We can always use people’s help if they want to donate water. And just sharing our story, following Flint Rising, Water You Fighting For, Democracy Defense League, actual grassroots groups on the ground. Talking to us, letting us know that you still care — because that helps. Every little bit of that helps. 

And also, test your water! Check your laws and regulations. Get your water tested independently. Because we don’t want anybody else finding out the way that we have that your water is poisoned.

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