Flint Isn’t Ready To Trust Anyone Yet

The years-long water safety crisis in Flint, Michigan, isn’t just
a cautionary tale; to many, it’s a canary in a coal mine.

Posted on May 24, 2017, 14:49 GMT

In the 1,000-plus days since Flint, Michigan, had
(federally acceptable) potable water, a lot more than the
pipes has eroded.

Trust, like dependably clean water, is not easy to come by in
this slightly careworn city of just under 100,000 people. For
residents, the knowledge that a toxic cocktail of
contaminants had been inadvertently released into their water
supply is bad enough. But the water crisis is also understood
as part of a grander historical narrative of neglect and
political dismissal.

For a city that has given the US — and by extension, the
world — so much (the modern automobile industry as we know it
was Flint-bred), Flint has been treated shabbily indeed. And
beneath the patina of low-level anger at the great injustice
it has been — and are still — experiencing lies another
layer, familiar to other victims of municipal wrongdoing the
world over: weary resignation. As I talked to residents of
Flint, or “Flintstones” as some call themselves, over several
days in February (during which time the state released its

Civil Rights Commission report, which highlighted
systemic and historical racism as one of the root causes of
the crisis), there was a palpable skepticism that things
would get better anytime soon. That’s because what we know to
be unacceptable has long been acceptable in Flint. If
you were to set a timer on how long it takes for “outraged”
to become “stoical,” it’s somewhere in the region of two and
a half years.

The story of how Flint’s water supply came to be dangerous
for consumption is largely familiar at this point, but here’s
an encapsulation: On 25 April 2014, the city of Flint

switched to the Flint River as its new water source. (It
had previously drawn from Lake Huron.) Residents began
complaining about skin rashes and the smell and colour of the
water soon after. In response, the city issued “boil water”
advisories in August and September 2014, and increased
flushing of the water mains. By October, General Motors

had switched its supply source to Flint Township over
fears that the chloride in the treated water from the Flint
River was causing corrosion in its machines. In early
February 2015, Flint resident LeeAnne Walters complained
about rashes on her son’s body, and by the end of the month
had reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In August 2015, a researcher from Virginia Tech named Marc
Edwards began testing Flint’s water quality; in September, he
alerted the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that
the water’s corrosiveness was causing the pipes to leach
lead. (The
DEQ disputed the results of Edwards’ study.) Later that
month, Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, a researcher at the city’s
Hurley Medical Center, found high levels of lead in Flint’s
children, prompting officials to issue a lead advisory — and
to reiterate that the city’s water complied with federal
safety laws.

On 1 October 2015, 524 days after the switch to the Flint
River, the Genesee County Health Department declared a public
health emergency and urged Flint residents to refrain from
drinking the water.

The water crisis is part of a grander historical narrative of
neglect and political dismissal.

By the time I left Flint on 22 February this year, the water
was still not safe enough to drink directly out of the
faucet, according to the politicians and charity workers I
spoke to, and the residents’ feelings on the matter had
remained at a simmer about it, quelled only slightly by
whole-house filters and bottled water (either privately
purchased or
received gratis from the city). The flip-flopping of city
and state officials over the water crisis confirmed for
residents something they had quietly considered the truth —
that their lives mean little to those in power — hardening
what had previously been only a lingering, general suspicion
into something more concrete.

In March this year, Mustafa Ali, the assistant associate
administrator of the Office of Environmental Justice,

resigned from the EPA after almost 25 years. His work had
been centred on mitigating the impact of pollution in
lower-income communities — communities like Flint, in fact —
and even then, his agency had been
roundly criticized for not doing enough. Flint was one of
most high-profile
examples of environmental injustice (the Dakota Access
pipeline is another) under an administration that at least
appeared to be interested in ameliorating the plight of
at-risk communities. Now in the era of President Trump — with
seeming disdain for the work of the EPA, and a wish-list
budget that featured swingeing cuts to the agency — questions
arise about what environmental justice will look like in the
years to come. But in the meantime — as no one has been
formally convicted of any crime as of writing — a lingering
question remains for the residents of Flint: Will they be
able to trust their elected officials — local, municipal, and
gubernatorial — ever again?

If the answer is yes, what, precisely, would it take?

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

Danielle and Christopher Kabel are still getting used
to life with their little one, a friendly and very noisy
9-month-old named Adara. The couple, who met in high school,
had been living with Danielle’s parents in Flushing, a city
just west of Flint, but recently moved back to an apartment
in the city. “I turned on the faucet in the bathroom sink,
and sure enough, it came out brown,” Danielle, 24, says with
a smirk. “I had forgotten that we had to worry about the
water in Flint until I turned on that faucet.”

We are sitting in the basement space of Veterans of Now, a
nonprofit enterprise on Court Street that provides veterans
with information and access to their entitlements. The
proprietor of VON is George F. Grundy II, a soft-spoken
former Marine whose description of returning home from
Afghanistan boils down to a few firmly uttered words: “I
didn’t have plans on getting out, but you know, life
happened, and it was time to leave.” He started VON because
he’d been in need himself. “When I got out of the military, I
found myself without shelter; I was homeless,” he says as he
helps himself to some of the communal loaded nachos in the
centre of the table. “So once I got into a position from
where I could help, I created the organization to do such.”
By the time he moved in, the water response in the city was
underway. “I
moved into my home February 29, 2016, and from that day
to this, I’ve had water on the location for people, for the
community to have access to.” He calls his place “a
warehouse” and works with
local organizations to offer work to young unemployed
people, which during the crisis has meant water delivery.
“It’s just trying to make a horrible situation tolerable. I
just do what I can, day to day. Just…do deliveries, and
create opportunities for people to be able to work, to be

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

Chris and Danielle Kabel with their daughter, Adara.

Around the table are other young Flintstones: Jordan Paul,
21, and Tony Atlis, 31, who sit near the Kabels and dig into
the nachos as well. Before we start talking about Flint, we
all discuss the merits of a catastrophe-imposed reset button,
inspired by Kathryn Schulz’s 2015 New Yorker article about a

super-earthquake in the not-too-distant future. Atlis
(who clearly enjoys playing to an audience) believes it’s the
only way humans will learn; Paul, younger and more
optimistic, is less convinced.

On the topic of Flint’s water, though, both men are similarly
appalled, and thinking of the ways poisoned water might
affect them — and the youngest members of their families.
Atlis has a 3-year-old daughter; Paul’s nephew is 2. The two
men have spent most of the crisis worried about them. “When
my daughter’s home,” says Atlis, who delivers water
throughout the city, “I can’t give her a bath in the water
because it can affect her little immune system.” That’s
because, he says, his own skin was affected by the tainted
water: “I noticed that I had a body rash from my neck down —
just real fine bumps — all over my body. Then it turned from
that to a, like, a big, almost like a scab. Like scales on my
body — it was itching and hurt. I was like, maybe I got
eczema or something, but then they began talking about the
water crisis.”

Atlis has strong words for the people who let this crisis
happen. “I think they should be punishable by death.” When
the others around the table recoil sharply, he shrugs.

Chris Kabel pipes up: “Waterboard them with the water from
our river?”

“I’m just being honest with you,” Atlis continues, “because
actually if you think about it, that’s…”

Danielle Kabel interrupts to finish his sentence: “…kinda
what they’re doing.”

“Right,” Atlis says.

The Kabels have an informal deadline set on when it might be
time to leave Flint. “It’s only a matter of time before, if
they don’t fix the problem, I’m getting the heck out of
here,” says Chris. “’Cause I’m not gonna have to deal with
her [he gestures at his daughter] growing up 18 years
— it’s already been three — dealing with this.” He fears his
home city may be the first domino, and describes it as the
“ground zero” of high lead in the water supply. “They’re
finding out all over the country that it’s not just Flint —
it’s multiple cities that are dealing with problems like
this, that are having high lead levels. We sit here and have
to be told, ‘Okay, your water’s at a safe drinking level of
lead now’” — he raises his voice incredulously now — “there
shouldn’t be no ‘safe levels’ of lead in your water!’” The
others laugh and murmur in agreement.

But his wife has other concerns, too. They’d like to add to
their family in the future — she’d love a little boy next —
and as she sees it, the water is only one of a list of the
city’s problems. “Education is a bad enough issue as it is,”
she says. “They’re steady closing schools and stuff like
that. But the water on top of that? Like, we can’t keep
going, living off bottled water. It takes a lot of water to
run a bath for a child. And as she gets older, that’s going
to be more water.”

She laughs as she bounces Adara on her knee. “Can’t keep
doing that. If the only option is to leave, that’s the only

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

George Grundy (center) at a grassroots community meeting
in the basement of his house on 5 May in Flint.

Flint is a city whose fortunes were built on capitalist
industry: Lumber gave way to GM (and the automobile
industry), and then…not much. It earned
a reputation as a hotbed of violent crime following its
economic downturn. For most people, Flint was best known for
its starring role in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary

Roger & Me, which followed GM’s decision to
close several plants there. Walking around the city in 2017,
however, is a little sadder: The quiet slide from being the
beating heart of an entire industry to a place where the
water is unsafe for human consumption feels apparent in every
square foot. What’s been going on in Flint for years reminds
George Grundy of a structured military action. “To conquer an
area,” he says quietly, “mess with their economics, you deal
with their food, and you tamper with their water. Those
things right there, they kill the community; it kills any
type of opportunity for them to fight back or to sustain
themselves. So with all the compounded issues that Flint is
dealing with…” He trails off. “We’re number one in a lot of
bad things, like crime: We’re in the top five when it comes
to crime. When it comes to the poorest communities, we’re in
the top 10. When it comes to anything negative that you wanna
say about American society, we win. We’re competitors for the

Around the table, his fellow Flintstones nod soberly. Since
the 2002–2003 academic year,
more than 20 schools have closed, almost half of them in
predominantly black neighbourhoods. The population of the
city has been
steadily declining since the 1920s, according to census
data. (Its peak was in 1960 at almost 200,000; it’s just
under half of that today.) For years,
breathless crime
reports told of Flint’s reputation for being
especially violent; in both 2010 and 2012 FBI figures
showed it had the
highest murder rate among cities with a population of
100,000 or more. (It
fell out of the top 10 most violent cities in the US last
year; local police figures
released last May suggested homicides were down 32%
year-on-year.) Flint verges on being an
urban food desert, with lower-earning residents having
less access to healthy food options, although since moving to
the more accessible location
of the old Flint Journal premises, the city’s vibrant
farmers market has seen an uptick in the number of poorer
residents who come to shop. The Bureau of Labor Statistics
reported the city’s unemployment rate at 5.4% in March this
year (nationally,
the rate was 4.5%), and the median household income in the
city is $24,862 (compared
with a state median of $51,084 and a national median of

Flint has its problems. It certainly did not need a
water crisis.

Sean Proctor for Buzzfeed

Water drips out of the bathtub faucet at the Harris
residence on 2 May in Flint. The family say they haven’t
used the bath since the beginning of the water crisis,
instead heating water on the stove and carrying it

If you’re in Flint these days, it is impossible
not to think of water — and everything that water
touches. There is no relief from the thought of it: Pulling
off the highway and heading to a hotel downtown, you can spot
the signs for water distribution centres. At the hotel
check-in, the traditional ornamental basket of health-giving
fruit on reception desks the world over is absent; instead,
there sits a basket of bottled water. The receptionist smiles
as she mentions the four complimentary bottles of
water in my room fridge, before telling me I can come and get
more anytime, and helpfully points out a machine
pumping out seven-times-filtered chilled water just opposite
the lifts. Thinking about water this closely is an enforced
hobby here, and before long I am caught in its thrall.
Upstairs, I brush my teeth with bottled water — reminding me
of my years at boarding school in Nigeria during the ’90s —
and when I shower I get just wet enough to lather, and again
to quickly rinse off, mouth grimly sealed the whole time. I
eat peelable-only fruit and decline polite offers of water at
every meeting I attend. When a small, blister-like irritation
springs up on my right leg a few days later, my first thought
is of the water. I snap a photo of it — just in case,
I think. My already-splintered trust breaks even further in
my few days in town; imagine this cycle, multiplied endlessly
over these many months, for the population of an entire city.

Water as a preoccupation is not new in Michigan. On some
level, everyone understands water’s place in Michigan’s
ecosystem (economic and otherwise). This is the Great Lakes
State, among other things, as well as one of those regions of
the country where industry is woven into the cultural fabric
— along with the attendant industrial waste. So water,

clean or dirty, is a constant and enduring Michigan
concern; anxiety about its cleanliness and potability is old
hat. (A friend from the Great Lakes Bay region not-so-fondly
remembers childhood fears about
Dow Chemical, and
dioxin levels.)

The intense focus on their city over these last couple of
years has given Flint residents a distinct air of media
training when you talk to them: Their responses have been
dulled by endless months of repetition to a sort of flat
patter. They’ve read the articles, they’ve watched the news,
and they are tired. Even so, there is still an eagerness to
talk about it, to make sure they haven’t been forgotten, to
hold someone — anyone — to account for what they see
as unequivocally unjust.

On 17 February, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC)
published a 131-page report, The Flint Water Crisis:
Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint.
a summary, the authors of the commission write, “We
believe the underlying issue is historical and systemic,
dates back nearly a century, and has at its foundation race
and segregation of the Flint community.” However, they are
quick to remove the suggestion this racism came from racists
in Flint today. (“We are not suggesting that those making
decisions related to this crisis were racists, or meant to
treat Flint any differently because it is a community
primarily made up by people of color.”)
The “top” notes are as follows: Implicit bias and racism
played a part, baked in as they are to Flint’s history of
segregation along housing and education; so did the emergency
manager law, which essentially overrode locally elected
officials and likely exacerbated the crisis.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about
pushing the button to go to the Flint River, or drinking the
water on Channel 5. I regret that that happened every single

Reiterating a conclusion reached by the governor-commissioned

Flint Water Advisory Task Force in March 2016, the
commission said the crisis was an act of environmental
injustice, adding, “had the emergency manager law focused on
the financial health of the city and the welfare of
its residents, and not just on cost-cutting measures, and/or
had it allowed for meaningful involvement of the community
when it came to the very basic needs of life, clean water and
clean air, this too could have served to mitigate or even
prevent the water crisis.”

An extract from the state’s own press release,
published on its website after the report came out,
boiled Flint’s issues down thusly: “historical, structural
and systemic racism combined with implicit bias led to
decisions, actions, and consequences in Flint [that] would
not have been allowed to happen in primarily white
communities such as Birmingham, Ann Arbor, or East Grand

Having been in office since August 2009, Dayne Walling was
the mayor of the city when the switchover to the Flint River
was made. He lost his re-election bid in November 2015 to
Karen Weaver, the city’s first female mayor. As with all
things politics in 2017, it’s difficult to say if he would’ve
held on to his seat in a city without an acute and ongoing
water crisis. But it’s true that in July 2015, then-mayor
Walling did his weekly appearance
on local TV channel WNEM and, while on air, drank water
drawn from the faucet in an attempt to prove it was safe for
residents to drink. “It’s your standard tap water,” he said
on camera, before adding, “You can taste a little bit of the

These days he is regretful of that moment. “There’s not a day
that goes by that I don’t think about pushing the button to
go to the Flint River, or drinking the water on Channel 5,”
he says when we speak. “I regret that that happened every
single day. It was honest of me to drink the water, because
my family — my kids, my parents — we were drinking the
water. I trusted that the water met the standards. And I
believed that the problems we were seeing were in individual
households, as a result of the ageing infrastructure, and I
was working every day to try to address the problems as I
understood them.” He clasps and unclasps his hands as he
pauses. “And then to find out, a few months later, that
there’s this underlying problem, that the corrosion control
wasn’t only not being done, but had this terrible
effect leaching lead into the system? You know, thousands of
kids, thousands of seniors being affected citywide. So I
regret those actions. Every day I carry that with me.”

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

The Flint River is seen at sunset on 5 May.

We’re speaking at Walling’s home, where he lives with his
wife and children. He seems sincere, which inherently makes
trusting him difficult — the aphorism about faking sincerity
comes to mind but doesn’t stick. He still lives in the city,
and even now, without his mayoral title, appears to care
deeply: He has a thoughtful face, and it’s not hard to
imagine him spending long hours thinking about both that
ill-fated TV appearance — and the crisis as it keeps
unfolding — all this time later. On the issue of trust,
Walling often returns to one word: transparency. In
order for the people of Flint to believe they are sincerely
cared for by the powers that be, they have to see it.
“It takes time,” he says. “We learned that information was
mismanaged, that information was deliberately manipulated and
filtered before it got to us here in this community, and it
was clear to me that it would take a long time for that trust
to be rebuilt. People have to see information and actions and
priorities all aligning, not for one week…but for years and
years.” Why, for example, he asks, isn’t there a centralized,
consistently updated service that details exactly what is
being fixed in the city’s water system?

“I’d like to be able to go on a map online and be able to see
the services that have been provided to every household and
every family here in the city, and be able to see what has
been done, what hasn’t been done, what’s planned to get
done,” he says. “People need to be able to go and see for
themselves what’s happening on that block of Brownell, what’s
happening on that block of Fenton Road.” It would be a
massive undertaking, involving all levels from city to
federal government, as well as volunteer organizations, but
Walling thinks it would be worth it. “If we keep talking in
generalities, then people aren’t going to be able to trust
those kinds of broad statements.”

The day before, I’d met state Sen. Jim Ananich at his home,
interrupting time with his young son, Jacob, whom he only
semi-successfully distracted with Sesame Street for
the duration of our conversation. “I don’t know what it would
take,” he’d replied when I asked how trust can be restored to
the people of Flint. But like the former mayor, he believes
it starts with the pipes, and he touts the benefits of total
transparency. “They always seem as though they’re trying to
get ahead of a press story. And until they stop doing that,
no one’s gonna believe them. I told them a year ago, told
people in the governor’s office, I said, ‘This is going to
sound crazy but what you should do is start telling the
truth.’ And nobody argued with me.”

On a visit to the beleaguered city in April 2016, Governor
Rick Snyder (now on his second term, and therefore ineligible
for re-election at the 2018 gubernatorial election),
promised he would drink Flint water for a month to prove
how safe the water was. (No one seems to have followed up to
confirm he kept this promise.)

Last month Ananich
released a statement saying, “My city was poisoned on
April 25, 2014 — three years ago today. To this day, we are
still reeling from the devastating effects of reckless
emergency management and a state government that failed to
keep us safe.”

The anniversary marked the city’s 1,097th day without clean

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

At the headquarters of the
United Way of Genesee County, a nonprofit in downtown
Flint, I speak with Jamie Gaskin, the CEO of the
organization. He is an affable, helpful sort of man, who
speaks with a relaxed drawl reminiscent of Hollywood actors
Owen Wilson and
Jere Burns.

Gaskin and the United Way stood with
Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha in 2015 when she announced the
results of her research into lead in Flint’s children,
responding to the emergency by buying filters, and water by
the truckload, to get to the most at-risk residents: pregnant
women and people with immune deficiencies. The wariness
residents feel, Gaskin contends, stems from a lack of
transparency from the city and state officials.
“Fundamentally, there’s this mistrust because of all the
uncertainty around who knew what when, and who was truthful
and who was not,” he says. The confusion over timelines and
information is a potent driver of suspicion.

“There are many people that don’t trust the government, or
the experts, then they’ve lost all this value [in their
homes]. There are people who clearly have symptoms or things
that have happened to them where they can say, ‘Look, this
has happened,’” he says. “And then there’s the unknown health
problems.” The worst of it, however, is what remains truly
unknowable. “The majority of people, I think, are sort of in
this mystery area, where you’ve had an unknown exposure over
this year-and-a-half period of time where the water was
coming from the Flint River, and you don’t know what the
health consequences are going to be, other than looking at
what data says lead exposure does to you over a lifetime,”
Gaskin continues. “And those things are simply not good:
lower IQ for children, folks with immune deficiencies having
a problem…” Earlier this year, the CDC found
a genetic link between an outbreak of Legionnaires’
disease between 2014 and 2015 and the city’s water.

Gaskin is a Flint resident himself, and bought a house in the
city 15 years ago. He has a chlorine filter installed in his
shower, and while he will also drink the filtered water, he
admits he prefers bottled. “The residents are faced — I’m
faced — with looking at this thing, going, ‘Who do I trust?’
I really look to the scientists and the experts to tell us
the truth. But emotionally, even when they’re looking at you
and telling you, and you believe them, it’s hard to
just…drink the water,” he says. Sen. Ananich echoed
Gaskin’s sentiments. “I don’t trust ’em and I’m part
of it, technically. Right?” he says. “I’ve seen too many
examples of where I have proof that they lied to me, through
emails that have come out. Communications I was having with
them, they were saying everything was fine and they were
communicating afterwards, saying, ‘My god, this is
terrible,’ but they didn’t tell me that, knowing that
I lived in Flint, and I had a 19-month-old.” He shakes his

“I think we have a long-term problem,” says Gaskin. “There’ll
be a lot of residents, a lot of kids probably, who will ask
questions every time they drink water for the rest of their
lives. Those are these kind of things that are gonna drag
with us for years and years.”

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

The Mission of Hope on Flint’s north side offers
residents in need a daytime warming center, TV, internet,
laundry, showers, and a kitchen.

For the next few or several years, filters will be the only
way for Flint residents to live and use the water being
pumped into their homes. “Learning to trust that a filter
really does what it’s supposed to do is critical to us moving
forward,” Gaskin says. “At some point the mass distribution
of water is likely to stop; we’re gonna get to some point in
the future where bottled water is not going to be everywhere
and what’s going to be left for us is filters. So it’s going
to be critical that residents learn to trust those filters.”

Here’s what Gaskin wants to stress: The water is still
not fit for consumption without human intervention at the
faucet end. “The water has returned to what the state would
describe as ‘normal’ levels but because there’s going to be
so much disruption to the system over the next three years
all the digging up of the thousands and thousands of
pipes, we won’t be able to drink the water unfiltered,
probably for three or four years.” As if to make sure I’m
grasping his words, he repeats himself, this time with a
level stare.

“I don’t share the ‘if I could, I would leave’ [narrative]
because I believe Flint is the canary in the coal

As the MCRC report noted: “Flint may yet have another water
crisis as, even when this contamination is gone, the pipes
replaced, and the water safe, its price will likely be beyond
the financial reach of many of Flint’s residents, but the
impact of this crisis will, both physically and
non-physically, be long lasting.”

Until March this year, Isaiah Oliver was the vice president
of community impact at the Foundation for Flint,
a charity that “raises and distributes resources to serve
the long-term health and development needs of Flint
children.” He looks like a younger, more bookish Will Smith
and is a proud Flint resident who wants to see this problem
entirely resolved. I ask if he would move if he could, like
some of the other people I’ve spoken to. His answer is long
and passionate.

“I don’t share the ‘if I could, I would leave’ [narrative]
because I believe Flint is the canary in the coal mine. I
love urban centres. I would be in a city just like Flint, and
I would be afraid if I were drinking the water in Chicago.
I’d be afraid if I were drinking water in Cincinnati, or in
Houston. Because they could have the same issues that
we have right now. And so I don’t believe that if I left and
went somewhere else that life would just be different, and
I’m willing to be on the front lines of trying to address the
issues at home.” Addressing and overcoming those issues will
take time, which is a luxury Flint cannot necessarily afford.
“[People] are making that decision to leave, because they’re
afraid, and rightfully so.”

Like many residents, Oliver struggles with the guilt that he
might have inadvertently allowed his children to drink
tainted water. “For the first year and a half of this, that
was the time my now 3-year-old was actually using bottles, I
was taking it straight out of the tap because the government
said it was okay. And I was shaking up the formula,” he says,
miming the shaking of a bottle, “and I was giving it directly
to my daughter. Grassroots groups were pushing information to
the forefront about this water not being safe and I was
saying, ‘Ennhhh, just calm down, we gotta trust the symstem;
we don’t have any reason not to trust it.’”

“So when my [older] daughter comes home with a cold or the
teacher says she’s counting by twos but her counting by fives
is slower, I’m thinking [he sucks air between his
]. Part of me wants to say that this is just normal.
But part of me as a parent says, Is that because I allowed
my daughter to drink the water?

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

Danielle and Chris Kabel give their daughter a bath,
using a space heater (lower right) to heat the water.

Those thoughts are going to keep cropping up for the parents
of Flint for the next few decades.
According to Save the Children, there are about 26,000
Flint children for whom lead poisoning is a threat, and one
January 2016 piece
in the Detroit Free Press had the number of children
under 6 in the city at 8,657, based on census data (and
admitted this could be a conservative estimate). Once someone
is exposed to lead, it is only detectable in the blood for 30
days, so blood tests taken after that time
may not reveal the full extent of exposure in the city.
This is the realm of “the unknown,” as the United Way’s Jamie
Gaskin put it. And the lack of clear and precise information
around who drank what when makes for a mess. It may take
years for the effects of lead to show up; how do you go about
remedying a problem when you are not even sure what your
child may have been exposed to? What parents and caregivers
can do, though, is read, and watch television — and what they
have been told from day one is that high levels of lead in
children have grim consequences.

At the time the results of Dr Hanna-Attisha’s study came to
light, she said, unequivocally, “Lead poisoning is
irreversible. This is not what our community needs.” In

a 2016 interview with CNN, she said, “There is no pill
… no antidote for lead.”
The EPA names the health effects of lead in children as
follows: “behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and
hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia.”

Even so, there are things people can do to alleviate lead
absorption, starting with a diet high in vitamin C, iron, and
calcium. Over at Mission of Hope, a small church about 15
minutes’ drive from downtown Flint (and also the first
organization to start handing out water on a continuous
basis, back in September 2014), Pastor Bobby Jackson shows me
his little community garden (the church has four garden plots
in the vicinity), where the congregation planted vegetables
to stall lead absorption in his community’s children. It’s
called the Garden of Love, but there are three more small
garden sites close by. “We live in a food desert here in
Flint. Last year, because of the water crisis, [we grew]
dark, green leafy vegetables — collard greens, kale — things
that would help absorb the lead. But normally it’s just
fruits and vegetables.” He shows me a plum tree and tells me
of the cherry trees that bloomed last summer. “Our goal is to
provide a self-sustaining ministry for the homeless, the
poor, and the mentally different,” says Pastor Bobby, which
is how everyone refers to him. “The water crisis added
another dimension.”

Sen. Ananich touts the programs available to parents. “A
number of really great programs” — like Head Start, and those
under the
Flint Child Health and Development Fund umbrella — “are
out there that can really sort of assess if there was damage
done and then help remediate it. We don’t have to assume
these kids are some throwaway generation. Love your kids,
make sure your kids get good nutrition, don’t assume that
they’re going to have lifelong problems — and if they do,
there’s things that we can do to make sure that they get the
help.” His own son, Jacob, was born “right during the
crisis,” in July 2015, and because he was adopted, Ananich is
in the dark as to what his exposure to lead-tainted water
might have been. “I have no idea what his prenatal care was.
So, you know, it’s one of those things where we…a lot of
folks, I mean, myself included, we’ve all gone through it.
It’s sort of stages of emotions. So there’s that feeling of
like, did I not do enough to protect my own family? There’s
anger. A lot of anger, a lot of stress.”

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

The Flint Water Treatment Plant on 2 May.

Gaskin of the United Way tries to be optimistic about the
future of an entire generation of Flint’s kids. “The world
needs to know that there are thousands of gifted children
growing up in Flint, that will continue to be gifted and
wonderful people,” he says. “This is not a community that is
sort of steamrolled, like, lock the doors and go away, you

He speaks enthusiastically of an initiative the UW is a part
of, called
Flint Kids Are. “[Flint kids are] bright, resilient,
healthy. We need to really make sure that we push a narrative
that acknowledges the problem and tries to help people become
as whole as possible, but also really recognizes the richness
that still exists here,” he says. “There are thousands and
thousands of people that every day wake up in the morning as
Flint residents, love the place that they’re in, and want to
see it thrive.” Also working directly with kids in the city
is the
Crim Fitness Foundation — its community education
partnership with Flint community schools focuses on social
services, nutrition education, and mindfulness programs.

“We’re working with a researcher now to document the effects
of mindfulness and how that helps,” says Christina Ferris,
director of advancement and outreach at Crim. “That constant
training of the mind to be able to focus, to calm, can
actually create some new neural connections.”

Although Flint has received the bulk of media attention, it
is far from the only community in the US where children have
higher-than-normal blood-lead levels.

This is the point at which it is important to note that
although Flint has received the bulk of media attention, it
is far from the only community in the US where children have
higher-than-normal blood-lead levels. In December 2016,

Reuters conducted an investigation into blood test
results that revealed nearly 3,000 places with worse results
than Flint. It is not possible to determine the exact source
of the lead in these cases — the culprits range from
crumbling water pipes to lead paint — but the common
denominator for much of these neighbourhoods is poverty and
old infrastructure. In
one California neighbourhood, 13.6% of blood tests came
back positive for high lead in children under the age of 6.
And in March this year, the Pittsburgh city government
announced it would
spend at least $1 million to provide
all residents with free filters, after tests showed high
lead levels due to lead in some water lines.

Perhaps the research being undertaken in Flint will mean
they, too, will soon be in receipt of similar programs being
offered to the city’s children. “One thing that we really do
that’s the most important thing — we provide hope,” says
Ferris. “Kids have felt like they’ve been poisoned, and it’s
a hopeless, frightening feeling.”

The rush to alleviate that feeling also sends a secondary
message, which is that Flint is a resilient city and
therefore likely to bounce back, eventually. Flintstones
enjoy a reputation of being a particularly hardy sort. This
is Auto City, after all, and the flint of their city’s name
lives in their very skin. George Grundy recalls his younger
days in other cities, and how his home city commanded instant
understanding: “Because I said I was from Flint, there was an
instant respect — we are cut from a certain cloth.” Jordan
Paul agrees. “I’m proud to say that I’m still here and I know
so many people who have chosen to stay here, not out of a
spirit of stubbornness, or a spirit of this is the way I’m
gonna do it
.” Tony Atlis says he remains in order to
speak truth to power. “We need more people…that are not
scared of the consequences, that’s gonna point the person
that’s wrong in the face, and say, ‘Hey, you wrong.’ That’s
what’s made me not cut and run. Plus, I’m from Flint. I mean,
if you can make it here, not New York, you can make it
anywhere. You know, we tough. We built different.”

Paul also notes that this renowned resilience, while helpful
for day-to-day living, is also subtly dehumanizing. “It’s in
a new form of persecution or discrimination, but it’s one of
those things where, you know, I guess, we ain’t new to this!”
He laughs ruefully. “Flint has that industrial culture thing
[that] speaks to just being tough as nails. I’m not saying
that it’s right, or ‘we can take it!’

“Nobody should have to take this.”

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

Crystal Rheaves didn’t live in Flint at the time of
the water source switchover — she moved to Grand Blanc, a
suburb about 15 minutes’ drive from downtown Flint, a few
years back — but she now lives and works in the city. For
her, the jig was up pretty much as soon as the announcement
was made. “Growing up, you would hear stories of two-headed,
three-headed fish in the water. You must be fishing
for sport if you’re fishing in the Flint River,” she says
emphatically, after we slide into a booth at La Azteca, a
Mexican restaurant near downtown Flint. “We as residents in
this area already knew: You don’t mess with this water. So
when they told us they were going to switch the water source,
my family, we all knew: I’m not messing with the

A few days later, as I walked along the Riverbank Park path,
I encountered two fishermen baiting their line and
inadvertently backing up Rheaves’ comments: This was
not fishing for sustenance. One of the men told me he
had previously caught sunfish and bass in these waters. “I
just do it for sport. I don’t eat it,” he said with a small,
knowing smile.

Rheaves’ knowledge of and interest in the water of Flint goes
beyond merely that of a civic-minded resident: She has lupus,
and to avoid compromising her immune system any further than
her condition already does, she tries to be very careful
about what she puts into her body. In Flint, that has meant
an adherence to bottled water — a habit even older than the
water crisis for Rheaves — and after the crisis, has
translated into a whole-house filtration system, whose
efficacy she is still a little shaky on. “To some degree, in
the back of my mind, I still don’t feel good about it,” she
says. “Because it’s not just lead — it’s other things that
they add into the water that are still problematic. It seems
like another Tuskegee experiment — now we have to research
and we have to follow all of these children throughout the
duration of their life because this is going to affect them
for the entirety of their life. It kinda makes you think
[like] those conspiracy theorists: How much of this was
pointed to this path?” On top of all that, Rheaves
can’t help but fret about the ecological impact of all this
plastic. “This is even worse on the environment. People
already have it hard enough in this city, just making it, day
to day; do you think people have time to recycle? You think
they care about recycling?”

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

Plastic trash bags filled with water bottles sit on the
side of the road in Flint ready to be collected for
disposal or recycling on May 2.

If the city and state want to begin the process of restoring
trust and faith to Flint residents, there is one thing they
could do, according to Rheaves. “They can start with charging
Snyder,” she says passionately. “Say we’re gonna hold who’s
responsible responsible.” (Speaking to the Detroit
Free Press last December, Gov. Snyder said he had
“no reason to be concerned” that criminal charges would
be brought against him.) In the meantime, residents have
brought lawsuits against, variously,
the state and
the EPA (a class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than
1,700 Flint residents,
seeking $722 million), and in March a federal judge
an $87 million settlement from the state for the city to
find and replace water lines over the next three years.
However, that same month, the state of Michigan
removed the city of Flint’s ability to sue the state. On
the issue of accountability, Sen. Ananich is unsure of the
eventual outcomes of current indictments — the attorney
general has indicted
13 people so far, including former emergency managers of
the city. “I can’t tell if it’s a political thing or if
they’re actually going to go after them,” he says. He’s clear
on how he sees it, though. “To me, it seems like this
was negligence, this was malfeasance, this was criminal
activity. It’s different than making a mistake. You can make
a mistake, and that happens sometimes. But knowingly
misleading people and all the things that they did… I think
the citizens of Flint deserve … to make sure someone is
held fully responsible for that.”

In April this year,
the city sent out letters to about 8,000 residents,
warning of possible tax liens (and the potential loss of
their homes) for overdue water and sewerage bills. Earlier
this month, city council members
agreed to suspend efforts to impose those tax liens; both
the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU had
registered their unease, with Kary L. Moss, the executive
director of the Michigan ACLU, calling the potential liens
“unjust.” Prior to these warning letters, Ananich had thought
trying to collect on outstanding water bills was a losing
battle. “It’s one of those things where people… this is
what I’ve tried to tell the folks at State. You can insist as
much as you want — they’re not going to do it. They’re just
not gonna pay it,” he says emphatically. “It matters what
[people] believe, and the fact they only gave us partial
credits in the first place was sort of the first stick in the
craw.” He accepts, to a degree, that water quality is
improved overall but believes the program of
water credits is ending far too soon, a view shared by
the former mayor, Dayne Walling. “You continue to hear so
many of us in the community saying, ‘This isn’t the right
time for water credits to go away, this isn’t the right time
for the state to be stepping back,’” Walling says. “Because
it’s not about getting one test below a federal action

“We need to be made whole,” says Ananich. “And
a lot of dollars have
been appropriated and that’s important and I’ll keep
fighting for those, but we haven’t been made whole yet. We
haven’t been made whole on our water bills; we haven’t been
made whole on our infrastructure.”

Sean Proctor for Buzzfeed

A Flint water bill totaling $590.15.

Infrastructure is a constant Flint concern. Crystal Rheaves
is adamant that pipe replacement projects need to be the top
priority. “Come and fix the pipes,” she exhorts plainly.
“[Snyder’s] talking about
a surplus in Michigan or whatever. We still need our
pipes fixed, OK? It shouldn’t be a year, two years later that
you started digging up the pipes.”

In March this year, the city awarded
contracts worth $35.6 million to replace 6,000 water
lines — the largest of which ($10.98 million) went to W.T.
Stevens Construction,
a black-owned firm.

But Rheaves believes Flint’s problems go beyond poisoned
water, even if that’s the most pressing issue on the table.
“It’s like, there are so many different things they would
have to do to restore trust. You can’t even start with just
the water: I have no trust in our government to say, ‘We care
about your education, your children’s education’ — just
basic, general things. I can’t trust you to do anything for
me when you’re saying you’re gonna cut money for this and
that, [but] you’re spending money doing things that don’t
even…” She cuts herself off, her voice higher and more
impassioned than it had been at the beginning of our

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

Dishes are washed in the backroom of the Lunch Studio in
downtown Flint on 2 May.

The gleaming promise of Flint’s past has faded over
time, as the automobile industry at the core of its economy
has wound down. The very technology that so excitingly
revolutionized and grew its fortunes has in many ways eaten
itself. The city has instead been beset by the usual suspects
that come with a big bust after a big boom; economic
downturns hit black Americans harder than most, and the
majority of Flint’s residents are

The MCRC never used the phrase “environmental racism,” but it
is a conclusion other people have already reached when it
comes to describing the issues that caused and exacerbated
the water crisis in the city. It’s a mantle a generation will
be forced to carry. Sen. Ananich is already looking to that
future. “There’s a lot of things that keep me up at night,”
he says, “but the fact that we’re going to look back 20 years
from now and that’s going to be…that basically their
government told them it’s okay to be treated differently
because of their skin colour, because of their income or
because of the fact that they live in an older urban city,
that’s just not acceptable to me.”

He talks of the stress and anger in his city’s residents,
which is “100% justified,” even as he recognizes it often
feels impotent. “But a whole community living in stress and
anger and frustration, even though it’s 100% justified, it’s
just not effective for the community. There’s times when I’m
just furious about what happened to us, the fact that it’s
taken so long to get… It’s termed a crisis, right? We’re
almost three years in and we refer to it as the ‘Flint water
crisis’ every day. There shouldn’t be a ‘crisis’ going on for
three years. If this was Bloomfield Hills, or Beverly Hills,
California, this would not be happening now.”

Sean Proctor for Buzzfeed

A sign on the wall of the backroom of the Lunch Studio on
2 May.

For all the environmental justice work that gets done at
local levels, all cues inevitably are taken from the federal
government’s actions, and recent developments do not paint a
rosy future. Only hours into Donald Trump’s presidency, EPA
officials were
instructed to freeze all contracts and grants, and in an
early budget plan from the Trump administration in March,
there was
a proposal to cut EPA funding that goes to the Great
Lakes cleanup efforts by 97%. Later that same month,
the EPA awarded $100 million to the Michigan DEQ for
infrastructure repair (which had already
been approved by Congress and the outgoing President
Obama in late 2016). In Scott Pruitt, the president has
selected an agency head who has often been diametrically
opposed to the EPA — when he was the attorney general in
Oklahoma, Pruitt
sued the agency 13 times. Even with the promised money
for Flint, if faith in the effectiveness of the EPA is at the
heart of people’s pursuit of environmental justice,
it must have taken a big hit over the last few months.

As we wind down our conversation, Rheaves sums up the problem
as she sees it: If the lives of Flint residents genuinely
mattered to the US economy in a tangible, measurable way, the
response would have come sooner. “They don’t care. They’re
not making it a point to get it fixed, because like I said,
this area — we’re not producing cars like we used to back in
the day. It’s not like we’re producing something they need.
We don’t have anything that’s demand-worthy to that degree
that we’re gonna matter in any sense. It’s like, what
incentive do they have to help us, besides doing the right
thing? Doing the right thing obviously means nothing to
them.” ●

Sean Proctor for BuzzFeed News

Water runs out of the dishwashing sink in the backroom of
the Lunch Studio.

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