Flint, Mich., residents find state water control hard to swallow

Health problems are rampant but locals say the city's oversight by a state emergency manager leaves them without options

In this Feb. 3, 2015, photo, Lemott Thomas carries free water being distributed at the Lincoln Park United Methodist Church in Flint, Michigan. Since the financially struggling city broke away from the Detroit water system last year, residents have been unhappy with the smell, taste and appearance of water from the city’s river as they await the completion of a pipe to Lake Huron. They also have raised health concerns.
Paul Sancya / AP

FLINT, Mich. — First, Ida Nappier’s hair started falling out.

The nearly lifelong resident of Flint started noticing clumps of hair tangled in her comb or stranded on her pillowcase last fall, about six months after the city switched from buying water from Detroit’s system, which draws from Lake Huron, and began sourcing water from the Flint River.

Nappier, known to most as Jackie, always had thick hair, which she wore long during her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, and later shoulder-length and feathered, Farrah Fawcett–style, during her years raising children and grandchildren in Flint. But suddenly she was losing her hair — and she was far from the only one. Across this shrinking Rust Belt city, residents’ hair and eyelashes began falling out. One woman confessed that she cried every time she cleaned the thick strands out of her shower drain.

At Nappier’s home, she and other family members continued to get sick, even though they heeded the series of boil-water advisories the city issued over the summer after E. coli and other bacteria were detected in the water system. Her daughter Glenda Colton returned to Flint from Ohio in the fall and promptly broke out in a rash across her neck and chest. In December and early January, Nappier’s grandchildren started vomiting and having diarrhea, she said, and they complained that their skin was itchy after showering. One day she ran a bath, and the water was the color of tea. The whole family switched to using bottled water for drinking, cooking and sometimes even bathing.

In January she and the rest of the city’s nearly 100,000 residents received a letter explaining that water testing revealed high levels of trihalomethanes, a group of chemicals known as THMs. Byproducts of the chlorination process, THMs have been linked to increased rates of cancer, kidney and liver failure and adverse birth outcomes. It later emerged that the city knew since the previous May that the THM levels were high — in some places, twice the maximum allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

A few weeks later, Nappier returned home from the senior center where she volunteers and ate a bowl of beef vegetable soup her daughter had mistakenly prepared with tap water. By the next morning, she felt sick. Then she had to repeatedly leave church services to use the bathroom. A few days later, she was so dehydrated from constant diarrhea that she asked to be taken to the Hurley Medical Center.

Tony Palladeno Jr. holds up a bottle of boiled water from his home's faucets, which has black particles floating in it, in Flint, March 5.
Joshua Lott / The New York Times / Redux

“I got to the hospital room,” she recalled, “and the doctor walked in and said, ‘Ms. Nappier, have you been drinking the Flint water?’”

The city of Flint sits about an hour’s drive from the banks of Lake Huron — one of the Great Lakes, which surround the state and account for 20 percent of the world’s freshwater. Yet Flint is embroiled in a contentious water war over the cost and quality of its drinking supply.

Almost immediately after the switch to Flint River water last April, residents began posting photos online of tea-colored and sometimes pee-colored tap water. Shortly afterward, the water’s high levels of bacteria, which are linked to conditions such as nausea and diarrhea, forced the city to announce a series of boil-water advisories. The city tried to eliminate the bacteria by treating the water with more chlorine, which in turn created the THM problem.

In the fall the local General Motors plant stopped using the river water out of fear that the chemicals would corrode car engines. After the January letter about THMs, trust in the water quality evaporated. Schools, government buildings and the children’s museum blocked access to or posted warning signs above water fountains. Head Start began distributing bottled water to its preschool students. Meanwhile, residents continued to receive astronomical monthly water and sewer bills — Flint’s rates are about eight times the national average — for water that many deemed undrinkable.

After the latest round of water testing in March, which showed decreased levels of THMs, the mayor and the state-appointed emergency manager insisted that the water is now safe to drink and that the switch to the Flint River is saving the city $12 million annually. But many residents aren’t convinced. On March 23, after months of protests, the City Council voted 7-1 on a resolution to do "all things necessary” to stop sourcing from the Flint River.

Yet just below the surface of this controversy lies not only a network of aging water and sewage pipes, but also the troubling state of the local democracy, which has disintegrated under Michigan's Public Act 436, known as the "emergency manager" law. Like a handful of other economically troubled Michigan cities, Flint is governed by a state-appointed emergency financial manager. He has unprecedented authority to, for example, single-handedly decide where the city’s water supply comes from or ignore City Council resolutions. In response to the vote, Flint’s emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, called the decision “incomprehensible” and indicated that the Flint River would remain the city’s source.

“This is a prime example of what dictatorship looks like,” said Nayyirah Shariff, a member of the Flint Democracy Defense League who has been helping to organize residents in response to the water crisis.

'They would break out in prickly hives … It was so bad that these people were just itching their skin right off of their bodies.'

Deanna Phelps

nurse at a rehabilitation center in Flint

Ten-year-old Flint resident Alexis Robert marches with her family on Global Water Day. “I get rashes sometimes,” she said.
Laura Gottesdiener

Deanna Phelps began noticing her patients’ rashes last year, shortly after the Flint River switch. A nurse in a rehabilitation center across the street from one of the city’s two main hospitals, Phelps treats postsurgery patients, many of whom are elderly and are in for extended stays.

“First they start itching a little bit, and then they would say something’s crawling on them,” she recalled. “They would break out in prickly hives … It was so bad that these people were just itching their skin right off of their bodies.”

The center’s doctors and nurses tried everything, she said, but nothing seemed to stop the rashes. First came the creams, which didn’t work. Next were trips to dermatologists, which resulted in new creams. These didn’t work either. Patients began complaining to family members, who alerted the Michigan Department of Human Services that there might be some type of scabies outbreak at the center. The state called to investigate. But Phelps and her coworkers had already tried scabies treatments, to no avail.

“That’s when we finally figured out that it’s probably related to the water,” she said.

For many across Flint, the skin irritation has been the most immediate and undeniable health effect. The stories abound: The young girl who was so covered in measles-like hives that she had to go to the emergency room. The elderly woman whose surgery had to be postponed because her rashes were so acute. The postshower rubbing of alcohol across one’s skin to soothe the fiery itch. At a storytelling event a few weeks ago, resident Sondra Ellison said her autistic son began developing bloodshot eyes and rashes from baths last summer. “He’s nonverbal,” she said, “so he can’t say, ‘Mommy, the water is burning me.’”

During a contentious public meeting at a city library in late March, a woman named Jackie Hill rose to her feet, turned her back to the panel of officials and lifted her fitted blouse, revealing a rash of dark black splotches.

After the January notice about the THMs, the center and the nearby hospital temporarily switched to providing all patients with bottled water — but the switch didn’t last long. Phelps doesn’t drink or cook with the water, and she wishes she didn’t have to give it to her patients.

“But basically I have nothing else to use,” she said. “It humiliates me because I know more than they do, and I wouldn’t drink it myself, so why would I give it to somebody else? It makes me feel humiliated, because it could harm them. Water is supposed to be good for you.”

'I went down to the City Council and said that it’s hard to treat river water and that there could be a [THM] issue, but no one listened.'

Arthur Woodson

Flint resident

THMs aren’t the only contaminant that has been detected in high levels in Flint’s drinking supply in the last year. Other residents have tested their water to find dangerous concentrations of lead and copper. Last summer and fall brought bacteria, including E. coli.

The most recent water test recorded THM levels below the threshold designated as unsafe by the EPA. However, residents quickly point out, these chemicals tend to fluctuate by season, and levels often spike in summer months. A recent report by the water giant Veolia, which was commissioned by the city for $40,000, recommended that Flint spend $3 million upgrading the treatment plant, retraining workers and installing a $1.5 million carbon filter. The filter would reduce the amount of chlorine needed to treat the river water, thereby decreasing THM levels.

Flint emergency manager Jerry Ambrose speaks after a news conference in Flint, Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015.
Paul Sancya / AP

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling has said that installing the carbon filter “probably isn’t necessary” because the city plans to switch to sourcing water from Lake Huron sometime in 2016, once a new pipeline is completed.

But many residents, including Arthur Woodson, a former nuclear, biological and chemical specialist for the U.S. Army, are uneasy about waiting that long. On the day of the City Council vote to move away from using Flint River water, Woodson spent the entire afternoon calling various government agencies, trying to get answers on everything from whether there has been an increase in miscarriages in the area to how long before the federal government could go in and take control of the situation.

“This is what I do all day,” he joked after he was unceremoniously disconnected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s automated information line.

An advocate for veterans attempting to navigate the Veterans Affairs system, Woodson first learned about THMs three years ago when he was helping a nearby resident process his claims. The man, who now has leukemia and other autoimmune diseases, had been stationed at the North Carolina military base Camp Lejeune, where for years he and his fellow soldiers were exposed to THMs and other toxic chemicals — including PCEs, TCEs and benzene — in the water.

As he was working on the case, he heard from a water treatment plant worker that the city was looking to switch to drawing from the Flint River.

“I went down to the City Council and said that it’s hard to treat river water and that there could be a [THM] issue, but no one listened,” Woodson recounted as he hunched over his telephone, on hold with the EPA.

He finally reached an official, whom he began peppering with questions about the agency’s compliance process and exactly how much trouble the city was in. (Short answer: Flint’s water is not considered in compliance with EPA standards, but it’s not far enough out of compliance to allow for federal intervention.)

Finally Woodson circled back to one of the most common questions raised around the whole water fiasco: Can’t Flint just go back to Detroit’s system, at least until the pipeline is built, to allow the city to draw from Lake Huron?

The official sighed. “A lot of us want it to go back to Detroit water,” she said.

For many of the city’s low-income residents, the water bills are so expensive, it’s impossible to buy additional water.

Contamination in Flint’s water system is only part of the city’s water woes. The other issue is its financial cost to the city and its residents.

To justify the switch to the Flint River, emergency manager Jerry Ambrose regularly cites the high cost of buying water from Detroit. But if the city is saving $12 million a year, that windfall hasn’t been passed along to the city’s residents. The average household water bill is $140 a month, according to a 2014 analysis by The Flint Journal. The steadily rising costs have been the subject of an ongoing lawsuit since 2012.

For many of the city’s low-income residents, the water bills are so expensive, it’s impossible to buy additional water. In February, resident Jean Pugh was hospitalized for two nights for dizziness, headaches, diarrhea and nausea, which she believes was caused by tap water. But her $683-a-month fixed income barely covers the rent and utility bills. She lives alone, yet her monthly water and sewage bill is $70 to $80 — on top of a gas and electric bill that can run as high as $300.

Sometimes she receives store-bought jugs from a friend or from her church, Antioch Missionary Baptist, where each week one of the deacons warns the congregation not to drink the city water.

“He says it every Sunday, but what am I going to do?” Pugh asked. “It’s easy to say, ‘Stay away!’ But I’m thirsty.”

She disappeared to the kitchen and then re-emerged with a glass. “Last night I boiled this water, because I knew I had only three bottles left.”

At Ida Nappier’s house, the combined costs of store-bought and city water have pushed her in the direction of a different sort of financial precipice: tax foreclosure.

Sitting on her living room couch, overlooking her worn front yard, she riffled through a stack of water bills ($201 in February and $175 in March, despite not using tap water to drink or cook), payment receipts, the occasional shutoff warning and, finally, the property tax notices. “I used my tax money to pay my water bill,” she said.

Meanwhile, on the municipal level, the reality of life under financial management continues to impede residents’ attempts to end their city’s reliance on the Flint River water.

As Woodson learned, EPA protocol requires that a state first attempt to resolve a local contamination issue before the agency will intervene.

But as he found himself explaining to the EPA official on the telephone, the state is already involved. “We’re under emergency manager, and in order for us to go to Flint River water, Gov. [Rick] Snyder had to give the approval,” Woodson said.  

“Oh, did he?” the official asked, sounding perplexed. “But didn’t the municipality ask to do that?”

“No, no,” Woodson responded. “The residents and City Council and the mayor had no say-so in this.”

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