The actions of a small group of dedicated activists in the Coalition for Clean Water led to the revelation that Flint, Michigan, residents were being poisoned by lead-contaminated water. The activists had been living with the yellow, brown, and red water flowing from their taps even as government officials denied it and the same poisoned water flowed from the taps at government buildings.
The activists, whose different organizations came together to form the coalition, organized, strategized, did water research and testing to expose the government’s lies. Coalition activists included Flint residents Rev. Alfred Harris of the Concerned Pastors for Social Action; Melissa Mays, a mother of three who co-founded the group Water You Fighting For; and Trachelle Young, a former Flint city attorney.
“After the switch to Flint River water, members of my congregation experienced dirty water, hair loss, and rashes,” says Harris, pastor of Flint’s Saints of God Church. “As a concerned pastor, I contacted city and state officials. I was told the water was OK according to these [federal] guidelines. But it was irrefutably true that the water was having an adverse affect on the people of Flint.”
That truth kept the members of the coalition fighting for justice. Now the whole world knows that lead-contaminated water poisoned people in the community of 100,000 where more than 60 percent are minorities and 40 percent live below the poverty level.
It started April 25, 2014, when the city switched from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to Flint River water treated at the Flint water treatment plant as a cost-saving measure. However, the Flint treatment plant did not add an anticorrosion chemical that would have kept the pipes from leaching lead into the water.
Many blame Gov. Rick Snyder because he appointed the emergency manager who made the switch. Michigan’s emergency manager law is a controversial statute allowing a state takeover – without a vote – of municipalities and school systems suffering extreme financial problems.
Intended to save Flint a reported $5 million over two years, the move will end up costing billions for long-term physical, mental, and social health care for an as yet unknown number of poisoning victims, in addition to infrastructure repair and replacement.
It could have been much worse had the coalition not stepped up when it did. Harris began acting on the issue just a few months after Flint River water began running through the pipes.
Melissa Mays began noticing health problems in late 2014. She and her three boys lost hair and developed rashes. During a nagging respiratory infection, Mays’ said her phlegm tasted like bleach. One preteen son had been having bone pain; when he broke a bone, it was brittle and it shattered.
Bone pain is a symptom of lead poisoning. That’s one of many science lessons Mays learned during her Flint water ordeal.
She grew suspicious after the city issued three boil-water warnings for E. Coli and other bacteria in the drinking water. The city’s solution had been to add extra chlorine. Then the water tested high for trihalomethanes, a chlorine byproduct that can lead to kidney or liver problems and an increased risk of cancer.
Mays and her husband, Michael Mays, began meeting with other concerned residents and formed the group Water You Fighting For. Michael, a web designer, put together a website to share information. That immediately got the attention of others, including environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who sent a representative to Flint to help bring more attention to the crisis.
When it became clear the group would need legal help, they contacted Trachelle Young, a former city attorney who was then in private practice as a criminal defense lawyer. Although she didn’t work in environmental law, the water had been affecting her, too. Every day, Young and her daughter travel about 35 miles to bathe at her mother’s or friends’ homes in Flint suburbs.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get paid,” says Young of taking on an initial suit to force the city to switch back to Detroit water. “I was going to have to research the subject, but this is more than just a case.”
Young and the coalition first sued in June 2015, unsuccessfully, to force the city to resume getting its water from Detroit.
Then the coalition decided it needed to conduct its own water tests. Members worked with Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor, to distribute 300 water testing kits among city residents.
Edwards expected to get back about 75 water test kits. He got 277.
“He was totally blown away by the number of kits that got returned,” says Curt Guyette, an ACLU reporter who got involved after investigating the emergency manager who made the Flint water decisions. Test accuracy relied on high community involvement.
Their test results showed a serious problem with the lead content – well over the federal action level for drinking water. City and state officials disputed the results, but they couldn’t deny them anymore when Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center released a study in September that showed high blood-lead levels in Flint children. By Oct. 16, Flint was reconnected with the Detroit water system.
On Jan. 27, 2016, the Concerned Pastors, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and activist Mays, sued in federal court to force Flint and the state to adhere to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The suit includes a demand that the city replace all lead pipes at no cost to residents. Separate county, state, and federal class action lawsuits have demanded the same.
There is still plenty to be done in Flint. Volunteers need to distribute the thousands of donated cases of bottled water. Health officials need to test children for lead poisoning and arrange for health care and rehabilitation for those who need it. Lead poisoning can cause developmental delays, learning difficulties, loss of appetite, fatigue, vomiting, and hearing loss, among other issues.
The recovery needs oversight. The government has damaged credibility with its residents.
Virginia Tech’s Edwards has been appointed to the newly created Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, which is tasked with finding a way to fix the water crisis. Hanna-Attisha is also on the committee.
In the meantime, coalition members are getting on with their lives. Attorney Young’s trajectory has gone from city attorney to city opponent. Pastor Harris signed up for social action a long time ago and has a hopeful sense of what this all means. “If there ever was an issue than can bring us together, the Lord has sent it to us.”
Like everyone else in Flint, their new life includes a whole new way of dealing with water. And other issues are looming: An entire generation has been endangered and the cost of infrastructure repair is daunting.
And not least, the issue of environmental racism has come up continually throughout the ordeal with people asking if this would have happened to a more affluent, more white community.
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