Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
But officials continue to tussle over the best path forward for the beleaguered city.
At Thursday’s congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder attempted to highlight his efforts at making the city whole again: Distributing bottled water and water filters, and requesting millions more in aid from the Michigan legislature and Congress.
“My focus is what I can do to make Flint a better place,” he said. “They deserve a fix.”
To which a crowd of Flint residents, watching the hearing in an upstairs overflow room at the U.S. Capitol building, responded: “Then resign!”
The hearing was a heated match of finger-pointing between the two witnesses, Governor Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, neither of whom accepted much personal responsibility as irate members of Congress showered them with questions.
But many of those who traveled from Michigan to attend weren’t only listening for Snyder to be accountable for past decisions. An uncertain future lies ahead for the beleaguered city of Flint, and many residents feel that Snyder’s “fix” and “focus” has been little more than lip service. Nothing less than a full replacement of the city’s water infrastructure will do—but the path towards that solution remains as muddy as Flint River water.
Nearly six months after Snyder admitted Flint’s water was unsafe to drink, the city remains in a state of emergency. Residents are tired of waiting for a solution. Cooking and bathing without tap water is not a sustainable way of life, especially in a city that’s lacking in grocery stores and reliable transit.
“We are sick and tired of the bottled water,” said Vincent Jones, a retired resident of Flint who bussed down to the hearing Thursday. He showed me a picture on his phone of a man using his electric wheelchair to haul a case of water away from a fire station. “That made me so mad,” he said.
Other aid efforts have been little more than PR stunts, many residents told me. Melissa Mays, who leads a local advocacy group called Water You Fighting For, told me that the water filters distributed by the state don’t fit most residents’ taps, and that they don’t all work, anyways. “These are not solutions,” she told me last month. “They are band-aids, until the governor gets off his rear end.”
Demecio Braylock Jr., who owns a construction company in Flint, attended Thursday’s hearing. His nephew died last year, for reasons his family believes are connected to the water. Now he wants answers. But so far, “it’s all just been a show,” Braylock said. “The bottled water, the fundraising—they have to make it look like something’s happening.”
Jones’ wife, Bunny, agreed. “Pipe replacement is the only way people are going to have faith in the system,” she said.
But city and state officials continue to tussle over the best plan for replacing Flint’s water infrastructure. Snyder wants to wait for the city’s lead pipes to re-coat with an anti-corrosive agent (which was added in December, after Flint reconnected its water supply to Detroit’s) while state contractors analyze where the lead is and how to safely replace it. For a lot of residents, the state’s timeline feels too indefinite, and the money feels too far from Flint’s hands.
Meanwhile, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has already launched her Fast Start program, which promises to replace all lead service lines following an expedited process developed in neighboring Lansing. In early March, Weaver stated that 30 lines would be replaced within three weeks, but so far only a handful of homes (both of which tested extraordinarily high for lead in the water) have been serviced. Representatives from the mayor’s office say that the funds needed to move forward have been held up by the governor and the state legislature. A $2 million state grant for lead line replacement was formally accepted by the city council on Monday, but Weaver has stated that $55 million is needed for all 15,000 lead service lines to be replaced.
To make matters more confusing, when crews dug up the front yard at one of the homes being serviced earlier this month, the pipes turned out to be copper, not lead. That illustrates just how fraught the replacement process will continue to be: Homes that test high for lead don’t necessarily have lead pipes. Lead fixtures throughout the system are causing problems, too.
“The whole infrastructure needs to be addressed,” said Flint resident Loui Brezzell, who traveled to the Capitol with her 8-year-old daughter. “It’s not going to do any good to only replace lead pipes.”
Flint City Council members have also raised concerns about Weaver’s program. But it’s understandable that Weaver is anxious to get those lead lines out, and fast. So long as that corroded infrastructure remains in the ground, it’s going to be hard for residents to accept their water as safe—or to trust their leaders again. And so long as Flint is the town with the infamously tainted pipes, it’s going to be hard, if not impossible, to imagine any real economic future for it.
An avenue towards growth
Weaver’s representatives told me that the mayor sees pipe replacement—as well as the influx of health and social services that emergency funds are also eventually supposed to provide—as not just a way to restore Flint to what it was, but as an avenue toward economic development.
“She thinks it would be a shame for all of this to happen and the city to not be better off for it,” said Kristin Moore, Weaver’s spokesperson. “She is really hoping this will revive the city. But to start attracting developers and employers, we need to get this water issue taken care of first.”
Mays agreed, and said that she even sees the pipe replacement itself as a chance for growth. “There are so many jobs that could be created with this: contractors, plumbers, engineers,” she told me. “As long as we keep the money out of corrupt hands.”
A number of people I spoke with Thursday were similarly optimistic, describing Flint as resilient and ready to fight until it gets that brighter future, in spite of the leaders who brought about tragedy.
Aaron Dunnigan, a pastor and construction worker who grew up in Flint, put it in biblical terms. “God is not a stranger to water crises,” he said. “There was one at the Red Sea. The people made it through, even though the government didn’t.”