Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
“If we don’t take this opportunity, then we’ve failed a second time,” says Mayor Karen Weaver.
On an overcast Wednesday afternoon, Melissa Mays stands pointing her camera over her bathtub, filming the greyish-green water as it fills the basin. The water’s chemical stench makes her gag, but she holds steady.
As the leader of the advocacy group Water You Fighting For, Mays planned to use the video footage to show Michigan state officials the current quality of the water in Flint, Michigan. In recent weeks, Mays and scores of residents have complained of painful rashes that they believe are tied to bathing in the tap water. “They burn, they break open, they bleed,” Mays says. “Nothing makes it better. It’s just Flint water.”
Two years ago, state officials made the fatefully bad decision to switch the city’s water source to the corrosive Flint River, exposing thousands of people to toxic lead levels when old service lines were corroded. Now those lead levels are finally declining, four months after the city reconnected to the Detroit water system and began treating the water with phosphates, which are supposed to coat the old pipes with a protective film.
But small flakes of lead can still chip off from pipes, spiking lead levels in homes at random. So the water remains high-risk, undrinkable, and virtually impossible to trust for a city repeatedly misled about the safety of its water by government officials. According to many residents and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, the only way to “fix” Flint is to remove and replace every lead service line in the city—period.
“If we don’t take this opportunity to do the right thing, then we’ve failed a second time,” Weaver tells CityLab.
At a press conference Tuesday, Marc Edwards, the lauded Virginia Tech civil engineer who helped expose the city’s lead crisis last fall, said that while he thought that residents “should have no more concerns about taking a bath or shower at present than anyone in any other city,” he wouldn’t blame any of them for doubting it. Many residents have resorted to using bottled water to bathe, or to using showers at hotels or at the homes friends and family. Some, like Mays, have no choice but to shower in the tap water. And though Edwards has said that residents should be running the taps as much as possible in order to help the phosphates take effect, Mays is anxious about the chemicals that might expose her to.
“This is not a lab, this is a real city,” she says. “What they’re doing is not working. We need new pipes.”
Only 33 lead service lines have been replaced in Flint, four months after Weaver declared a state of emergency, and six months after she announced the “Fast Start” pipe replacement initiative, which aims to replace all 8,000 lead services lines citywide.
New pipes would obviously be instrumental in addressing Flint’s fundamental need: water that residents can trust. But the prospect of new pipes also represents a kind of re-set button for Flint’s economy. In a city where the poverty rate is nearly 40 percent, and nearly 10 percent of residents are unemployed, many view replacing corroded infrastructure as a means of economic development. Jobs can be created. Pockets can be filled. Businesses and services can be attracted.
“We need more plumbers and pipe providers, more school nurses and mental health providers,” Weaver says. “Getting local people employed in these projects is part of how we rebuild the city of Flint.”