You've probably seen the city of Flint, Michigan, pop up in your Facebook feed lately. That's because the tap water in Flint looks like this:
Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press
Not pee. Pee would actually be safer.
And maybe you see that and go, "So what? I've had brown water come out of my pipes a couple times. Man up, Michigan." But the water in Flint isn't just ugly: It's filled with lead. A water expert from the Environmental Protection Agency found that at least one home in the area had more than 10 times the EPA's red-alert level of lead coming out of the faucets. In all, about 9,000 children were exposed. Lead exposure during childhood has been linked to lowered IQ, kidney damage, and decreased attention span. And not only is the damage irreversible, it's possible that exposed kids will pass some of the effects of lead poisoning on to their own children and even to their eventual grandchildren.
How the hell can something like this happen in America? Well, last year the city of Flint switched their water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in a bid to save money. After the switch, they stopped adding orthophosphate -- a chemical that stops lead and iron pipes from rotting away into the water supply. It made a difference: Six months after the water source switch, the local GM plant stopped using Flint water because it was so corrosive, it was harmful to their engine parts.
The Flint Journal
Engines. Made of metal, not fleshly bits.
So, yeah, this water is so bad it could kill Optimus Prime. But city officials denied anything was wrong, and -- up until a few months ago -- urged citizens that their brown, smelly water was 100 percent safe. Cracked talked to a local news station producer who's been covering the situation since last summer, and who recently read through the nearly 300 pages of emails Michigan Governor Rick Snyder released that detail the incompetence and lying behind the scenes that led to the lead-laced water poisoning thousands of people. Our source, pseudonymed April O'Neil, told us ...
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images News/Getty Images
One of the most shareable stories out of the whole Flint mess is that $100 a day would have kept lead from leaching into Flint's pipes. When the city switched water supplies, they stopped using the orthophosphate that kept their 75-year-old pipes from poisoning everyone. "If the city had just spent the extra hundred bones on orthophosphates, none of this would be happening," is how this tale's come down through social media.
Half of them were "My cousin saves $100/day using ONE WEIRD TRICK. Doctors hate him!"
But officials in and around Flint didn't cut orthophosphates to save money. They did it for a simpler reason: good ol' fashioned apocalyptic incompetence. April says the media's fondness for mentioning the low cost of the anti-corrosive "makes it sound like the corrosion control was an issue of money. From what we understand, it's just an issue of ignorance."
It turns out the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality -- the guys who oversaw the water treatment -- didn't know what the hell they were doing. April explained, "[Department Director Dan] Wyant did an interview with the Detroit News around the point he figured out essentially his staff had just fucked up. His staff had never dealt with a water source change, something that doesn't really happen too often. The corrosion control protocol they were following was for a city that was less than 50,000 people. Flint has almost 100,000."
And not only did the increasingly ironically named Department of Environmental Quality fuck up their corrosion control protocol, they eventually just abandoned it entirely out of, well, the reason's totally fucking unclear. "[MDEQ] did corrosion control for the first six months after they switched to Flint [river as a water source]," April said. "For the second six months, they did less corrosion control; then ... it tapered off," because presumably "become a regional HYDRA office" was on the department's collective bucket list.
"It will all come to fruition once we leave these Flint Tourism Bureau pamphlets
in Nick Fury's mailbox."
Wyant has since resigned, but not before clarifying: "We thought the rules were being followed, and our staff believed in what they were doing, and they thought they needed two different tests, but the reality is we needed to be using a different protocol."
(Fun fact: The protocol that the department should've followed to avoid poisoning thousands of children was available on Google the whole time. Look guys, we found it!)
So what's the total damage here? Experts believe the 18 months without corrosion control may have aged the pipes as much as 10 years. That could be $1.5 billion in damage to Flint's pipes. Flint, by the way, has an annual budget of $162 million.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Last summer, Flint's then-mayor, Dayne Walling, pulled a career-ending publicity stunt when he drank a glass of local tap water on-air. It wasn't taken as a show of solidarity, but rather a demonstration of how little he thought of his constituents' concerns about all the hair loss and scream-inducing skin irritation that started not long after Flint River water started flowing into their homes.
This was just days after Walling had been made aware of a report showing insanely high lead readings from within a Flint home. The author of the report was one of the EPA's own water experts. A representative from the American Civil Liberties Union reached out to the mayor for comment about this. Faced with a potential call-to-action, he ... followed an EPA official's frantic, emailed advice not to worry about it. Another official claimed the report was just a draft.
So he did this:
"Suckers. This isn't even tap water, just a glass of harmless urine."
Meanwhile, the governor's chief of staff at the time, Dennis Muchmore, helpfully characterized the people complaining about a little lead-poisoning as "the anti-everything group." Muchmore added that the "DEQ and [the Department of Health and Human Services] and EPA can't find evidence of a major change" in lead levels.
We cannot emphasize how much that was a lie.
And the state Department of Health and Human Services? They were too busy copping a "walk it off" attitude to actually check their notes, as demonstrated by the agency's communications director Geralyn Lasher in a now-public email:
That "data" Lasher found so objectionable were blood test results that Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha independently compiled from 1,746 Flint children showing many of them had elevated blood-lead levels. In some Flint zip codes, more than 6 percent of the children tested far beyond acceptable levels. And, yes, the timing corresponded with the water switchover.
Rather than take the doctor's work or the EPA's report seriously, Lasher complained that the 1,700 kids surveyed were "a much smaller sample" than Michigan's DHHS had used. She neglected to mention the MDHHS sample was fluffed with the test results of children who did not drink Flint's poisoned water. (Lasher did note that anyone on government food assistance would be able to purchase bottled water with their SNAP funds, so yay?)
Speaking of access to bottled water, it turns out there was enough widespread concern about Flint's water quality that state government offices began providing their employees coolers of bottled water, strategically set next to all the drinking fountains, as early as February 2015. The email assured state government employees that bottled water would be provided "as long as the public water does not meet treatment requirements." For those keeping track at home, this was five months before the quickly buried EPA report and eight months before the DHHS and governor's office fired off internal emails attempting to quash citizens' concerns as ignorant paranoia.
The Flint Journal
Yet, a surprising two months after GM's "your shit melts our engines" complaint.
Even after Gov. Snyder publicly applauded the doctor for her persistence, the Department of (Ignoring) Health and Human Services kept running their own "tests" to make the water look safe. April says, "They weren't testing the water in the homes. Instead of going to where people were getting the water, after it traveled through (some) 550 miles of pipes with no corrosion control, they were testing at the (water treatment) facility."
Why were the people of Flint being so actively gaslighted by their public officials? April has a theory or two, culled from firsthand observation. "There's a lot of discussion that if this had happened in a city that wasn't 60 percent black, this would never had gone on. I don't disagree with that by any stretch. You have every step of local government completely failing an entire city and dismissing their concerns because they're poor and uneducated and predominantly minority."
And, unfortunately ...
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Experts fear that the recent damage done to Flint's 550 miles of pipes is irreversible. In a terrifyingly authentic moment of live news coverage, April's station captured another unsavory fact about Flint infrastructure: The city has mostly mapped its water arteries on 42,000 index cards, because future generations always enjoy a ripping puzzle. As a result, they have no goddamn idea where the lead-lined pipes leaching poison into the city water are actually located.
Beyond this, the people of Flint have some pretty damn good reasons not to trust their local government ... which was horribly inconvenient when the government finally got around to issuing a lead advisory late last September, assuring residents they could treat their tap water with complimentary Brita filters.
And the government's sluggish pace hasn't helped. The state's door-to-door campaign to inform each of Flint's 33,000 households to stop drinking their poison water wrapped up just last week. This means a four-month gap between realizing the water was liquid murder and telling everyone about it. And some Flint residents never got the message. April explained further, "There is a considerable homeless population in Flint. ... I don't know what more has been done to protect them. From experience, I'm assuming it isn't much."
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"Homeless people don't even have plumbing; what's the big deal?"
And while the government is now distributing water rations, they aren't handing over tens of gallons at a time. This means busy, impoverished people have to regularly take time they don't have to go grab the water they need for basic tasks, like "not dying of dehydration," which you may remember was the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road.
"Hey, I resent that. My water was potable."
The city's undocumented immigrants were briefly denied bottled water handouts in the absence of required paperwork. The rules for accessing water rations have lightened up, but the rumor persists. "Originally, residents were told they had to have a water bill or a state identification. That's now changed," April said.
But, obviously, handing out bottled water to everyone isn't a long-term fix. Many residents believe they can boil their water to make it safe -- a myth April has to regularly bust on her network's Facebook page. Many restaurants have installed state-of-the-art filtration systems to clean their water, but for the majority of Flint ...
State officials insist they can mitigate Flint's dirty pipe problem for the time being, but those in the know -- like Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, the scientist who authored the first report on Flint's dangerous water -- say those pipes are past the point of no return. He has a better track record on these matters than the state government.
The closest thing to a viable solution came from an Atlanta-area businessman, who has suggested delivering purified water in 55-gallon drums to individual homes, bypassing their corrosive, lead-leaching pipes.
But not their corrosive, leaching local state officials.
That said, little information exists about his company, Prevail Water Inc., other than that it is registered in the state of Georgia and the owner is sitting on the domain name. April calls this excruciatingly thin proposition "the closest to any kind of long-term solution that we have," because sometimes emergency policies are plagiarized from The Music Man.
Flint's water is horrific, but the problem is actually as broad as the entire freaking state of Michigan, which has a D rating in infrastructure. April lives a half-hour from Flint and draws her water from a different source. It still put her in the hospital, she said. "I'd lived there for two weeks when I ended up hospitalized for a massive kidney infection and kidney stones. I had to have surgery in order to have the kidney stones removed. It was the worst experience of my goddamn life."
And between that or possible lead, this is the good outcome.
Although she knows her community doesn't have lead-tainted water, she does know of at least one other resident who had identical symptoms after a month of living there. "I shower, I brush my teeth with it. But I'm distrustful of the water. I can empathize with what the folks are going through in Flint, even just to a small degree, because I am afraid of the water I have. I won't even make ice with the tap water. ... I started buying bottled water, I switched over to getting gallon jugs, and I haven't had any issues with my kidneys since then."
Again, this deplorable deterioration of government initiative, infrastructure, and human health is happening in America, right now, and not in some dystopian hellscape featured in a movie you once found in the nickel VHS bin of your local video store (before it turned into a Cold Stone Creamery). Our parents were promised Star Trek. We're getting, like, fucking Battletruck.
Battletruck Films Ltd.
Aaand we just gave some Flint city official an idea to revive their economy.
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