Even as lead poisoned their water, residents of Flint, Michigan paid the highest prices in the country to keep the tap on, according to a survey of the 500 largest water systems in the United States.
In 2015, a typical household in Flint paid $864.32 a year for the undrinkable water, says the report authored by Food and Water Watch. In a city where four in ten people live below the poverty line, water bills were more than $500 higher than the national and Michigan averages for water from a public utility.
"Some of the poorest people in the US are paying the highest price for the worst quality water in the United States," Flint reverend Allen Overton said. "It's appalling — and in a region we call the Great Lakes."
Food and Water Watch conducted its survey in January 2015 and found that, on average, prices from for-profit systems were nearly $200 higher than public utilities. But Flint's water system is public. As explanation, Overton, a member of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, pointed to a series of price hikes starting well before the disastrous 2014 decision to switch Flint off water from Lake Michigan in favor of the Flint River.
For decades Flint relied on water from Detroit's utility company. Following the larger Rust Belt city upping prices, Flint's state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley oversaw the switch to the Flint River in an effort to save the floundering city $5 million over two years. Despite warnings to public officials, the corrosive river water was not properly treated and began leaching lead from Flint's pipes. For months some public officials downplayed evidence that the water was contaminated and the mostly African-American city of 100,000 was exposed to a toxin known to cause brain damage — especially in children.
But the switch didn't realize savings for the people of Flint. In fact, explained Michael Steinberg, Legal Director of Michigan's ACLU, Flint charged residents higher rates than what it paid to Detroit, as well as additional fees since 2011. To help cope with it's financial emergency, the state-managed city used the money to subsidize general operations.
A circuit court judge ruled in August that this practice was illegal and ordered water bills lowered by 35 percent, compared to when Food and Water watch conducted its research. But Mary Grant, who led the organization's study, said that Flint's prices remain higher than average.
"We see this as an indictment of emergency management and the state taking over a water system and running that system like a business instead of a public service," said Grant.
The state and federal governments have committed over $100 million in relief funding, but it remains uncertain when Flint residents will once again have potable water. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is seeking an additional $30 million from the state legislature to reimburse people for part of what they've been paying for contaminated water.
Flint has become an issue in the presidential primary and Snyder, a Republican, has agreed to testify before congress about his role in the catastrophe. The GOP field's response to the crisis has been muted, but the Democrats have made the city a focus. Hillary Clinton visited Flint and said the water crisis is "a civil rights issue," while rival Bernie Sanders has called for Snyder's resignation.
The city will host a March 6 Democratic debate, and one resident said she shares the sentiment of the senator from Vermont. Mary Lawston, a retired widow, said that she still struggles to pay between $172 and $214 a month for water she and her grandchildren can't use.
"This is a man-made problem and I hope and pray that the one made this problem is punished for it, because there's no way in this beautiful world that they should have did that to we poor people, we poor, black people," said Lawston.
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @jzbleiberg