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'Smothering the Outcry': The Inside Story of How the State of Michigan Poisoned Flint

A decades-long economic breakdown, botched government oversight, and, residents argue, the suspension of the democratic process itself all led to the city of 100,000 drinking water with the potential to kill them.

by Kayla Ruble
Feb 9 2016, 3:55pm

Flint residents pick up bottled water at a community center. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

On a spring evening last March, a handful of people gathered at a city council meeting in Flint, Michigan to voice their concerns. One man talked about the need for new playground equipment at Potter Longway Park. Another said he was worried that a city development project was neglecting poor neighborhoods.

But as the two-hour meeting dragged on, one issue was brought up again and again: the city's sometimes brown, often foul-smelling tap water — and the lack of action on the part of officials to do anything about it.

That night, however, there was action. Councilman Eric Mays proposed a resolution for the city to stop drawing its water from the Flint River. The move had the potential to reverse a decision made one year earlier by Flint's state-appointed emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who signed off on using the new water source after failing to reach an agreement to continue buying water from Detroit, from which Flint had purchased water for nearly 50 years.

"I move that we do all things necessary to go back to Detroit water, and that's the motion," Mays said in his deep baritone. "This is a motion that people in the community have asked me to make, I've so made it."

Councilman Kerry Nelson agreed: "Ain't no shame in my game, we need to go back to Detroit [and] give the people good quality clean drinking water until this [pipeline] come."

Flint was supposed to draw its water from the river for two years, until the completion of the area's new Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) pipeline. City officials had for years called for Flint to break away from Detroit's water monopoly — and price controls — and in April 2014, the city's treatment plant started using water from the Flint River.

Almost immediately after the switch, however, residents began to complain about everything from strange colors and smells in the water to rashes and hair loss. The city soon began sending residents boil water warnings, E. Coli contamination notifications, and an alert about increased levels of Trihalomethanes — a byproduct of chlorine that can cause cancer after long-term exposure.

State officials, meanwhile, tried to reassure Flint residents that their water was okay to drink, but activists, parents, and local politicians like Mays were spooked enough to push for a change.

All but one of the council members voted in favor of Mays' proposal — but the change was hardly guaranteed. Nelson wondered aloud whether the council's decision to switch back to Detroit would get the green light from the person who had the final say, the city's latest state-appointed emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, who had taken over in January 2015.

"We know that the emergency manager is in charge," Flint resident A.C. Dumas said at the council meeting. "Whatever he decides, that's what happens."

The following day, Ambrose rejected the decision, saying that Flint's water was safe and that the switch would be too costly.

"Flint water today is safe by all [Environmental Protection Agency] and [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] standards, and the city is working daily to improve its quality," Ambrose said in a statement issued on March 24. "It is incomprehensible to me that members of the Flint City Council would want to send more than $12 million a year to the system serving Southeast Michigan, even if Flint rate-payers could afford it. The water from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint."

Like the four other emergency managers who had previously been put in charge of Flint, Ambrose ultimately controlled every aspect of city planning. Switching to Detroit water at that point would have cost the city about $800,000 a month. The city council's vote was simply procedural; the decision was solely Ambrose's.

Emergency managers have local offices in Flint, but they answer to the state's Department of Treasury in the capital of Lansing. Ambrose spent most of his career in Lansing before starting work in Flint's emergency manager office, made up of state employees who are not subject to elections or constituent concerns like a city council member.

"You have to realize we've got an emergency manager, he's from Lansing," Nelson said. "These people leave our communities and they're not from here. They leave here, we stay here."

* * *

Today, nearly a year after Ambrose rejected the switch, Flint is in the middle of a water crisis that has been deemed a national emergency. Independent and government testing conducted last year confirmed that the water flowing out of the city's pipes and into residents' homes has extremely high levels of lead. In October, Governor Rick Snyder finally acknowledged lead concentration in some homes had surpassed the action level of 15 parts per billion as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Last month, Snyder dispatched the National Guard and Michigan State Police to distribute free bottled water to residents, and President Barack Obama offered $80 million in emergency aid. While much of the focus has centered around securing safe drinking water for Flint's 30,000 homes, many people have been left wondering whether officials were aware of the problem before admitting it publicly. Residents and officials across the city have focused their frustrations on the state, particularly the emergency managers who controlled the city throughout the duration of the water controversy, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), which failed to ensure the safety of Flint's water, according to a state task force. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette opened an investigation, and in February the FBI got involved, joining a multi-agency investigation team that includes the US Postal Inspection Service and the EPA.

Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News

"We saw time and time again people putting out information they knew wasn't true," said Democratic state senator Jim Ananich, referring to the state officials who repeatedly said the water met safe drinking water standards. "Obviously [the switch] was about cost cutting, but the damage to the citizens [and] the long-term costs will be way more, not even comparable, to what they would have saved switching to this terrible source of water."

Darnell Earley, the emergency manager who signed off on the final order to switch to the Flint River without consulting the mayor or city council, resigned from his most recent position with Detroit Public Schools and came under fire last week for refusing to appear before the US Congress.

Testifying in front of the US House Oversight Committee last week, Flint native and Michigan congressman Dan Kildee underscored the role of the emergency manager in the water crisis, pushing back against colleagues who cited failure at all levels of government and criticized local decision making. While the initial decision to join the new pipeline was city council approved, the remaining orders were all signed off on by emergency managers who didn't consult local officials.

"Let's be clear about one point, one very important point," Kildee said. "Every decision that was made for the City of Flint that relates to this crisis was made by a state-appointed emergency manager."

* * *

Flint, the birthplace of General Motors (GM), has been in steady decline for decades. GM brands like Buick and Chevrolet once employed 85,000 people in the city, but layoffs and plant closings that began in earnest in the 1980s led to the loss of about 81,000 automotive jobs by the early 1990s. Forty percent of Flint residents now live below the poverty line.

The plant closings also forced thousands of residents to leave the city; today fewer than 100,000 people call Flint home, down from a peak of 196,000 in 1960. As families moved out, they often left abandoned houses behind them, which only served to fuel high crime rates that today make Flint one of the nation's most dangerous cities.

By the turn of the century, Flint's tax base was decimated and the city was suffering huge budget deficits, so the state of Michigan placed Flint in financial receivership between 2002 to 2004. But it was the second round of emergency manager rule, starting in 2011, that put residents and local politicians at odds with the system.

Abandoned homes on Flint's north side. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

The Emergency Financial Manager law, in place since 1988, allowed a local board to select an emergency financial manager to handle finances for a city or school district. Snyder took office in 2011, at a time when cities throughout the state were in dire financial straits; Detroit would file for bankruptcy two years later. Within months, Snyder and the Republican majority legislature passed Public Act 4, which updated and strengthened the role of emergency managers; the new law allowed the governor and a state-appointed review board — as opposed to a local board to select an emergency manager for a city in financial distress. The appointed manager would assume all decision-making power for the city and essentially replace the local governing body.

When the law initially passed, long-time Flint community organizer Claire McClinton, who retired from GM in 2008, was concerned that the emergency managers would have the ability to alter public pensions and union contracts, since they had the ability to privatize public services and sell off city assets in order to bring cities out of debt. So she got involved in a state-wide movement to repeal the act, which involved gathering thousands of signatures across Michigan.

"It was just so out of the box… to be able to send someone in to just take over your city and do whatever they wanted to with [its] assets," McClinton said. "I know as I walked around telling people [about] what that law would do… it would make the hair on the back of [my] neck stand up."

In a referendum on the ballot during the 2012 general elections, 52 percent of Michigan voters cast ballots against Public Act 4 — but politicians then pushed through an updated emergency manager law named Public Act 436, which is the law currently on the books.

A revolving door of emergency managers proceeded to step in and slash Flint's budgets: Michael Brown in 2011, Ed Kurtz in 2012, Brown again in 2013, Earley at the end of of 2013, and Ambrose in 2015. The city saw police and fire department jobs cut, the sanitation department privatized, and its emergency dispatch system melded with the county's. Meanwhile, the city raised water rates; increases were put in place as recently as 2015, in the midst of the TTHM revelations and growing water quality concerns. The average Flint resident pays $150 a month for water and sewage utilities — about eight times more than the national average.

In March 2013, the city council voted 8-1 in favor of joining the KWA pipeline; the switch was expected to shave approximately $4 million each year off of the city's water expenditure. Mayor Dayne Walling, who was voted out in 2015 as the water crisis escalated, hailed the decision. 

"Every analysis keeps showing the same result — that the new raw water pipeline is the cheapest source, and it has the additional benefits of partial ownership and economic development," Walling said. "This is the single biggest decision for the city of Flint in decades."

Based on the meeting minutes, the mayor made it clear that the city planned to continue buying water from Detroit while the pipeline was under construction. Days later, however, the city of Detroit issued a notice that it could potentially terminate its contract with Flint a year before the pipeline was scheduled to be finished.

"Flint had to know that this was the next step," Detroit Water and Sewerage Department [DWSD] spokesman Bill Johnson told local news site MLive at the time. "Perhaps [water purchases after April 17, 2014] is something that will be part of discussions with Flint."

Emails that have emerged in the last few weeks indicate that the DWSD attempted on multiple occasions to broker a deal with Flint in the months between sending the termination letter and the water switch. As an email first released by Muckraker Detroit shows, there was an offer potentially on the table for Flint to stick with DWSD in a long-term contract and nix joining KWA. It's unclear whether any short-term two year plans were discussed.

But no agreement was reached. In June 2013, Kurtz signed off on beginning the switch to the Flint River, and in April 2014, Earley signed off on the official switch. The city council and mayor say they were not consulted. There were no public hearings and no council vote was taken.

County Commissioner Bryant Nolden distributes water in Flint with neighborhood volunteers. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

Genesee County Drain Commissioner and KWA head Jeff Wright acknowledged that Detroit offered different options to Genesee County and Flint, which have separate water utilities. (Flint is located in Genesee County.) According to Wright, however, Flint and Genesee decided not to accept Detroit's 30-year contract proposal due to a concern that Detroit could increase water rates down the road, and the belief that the city and county would save money with the new water authority in the long run.

Though he wanted to move away from Detroit once the new KWA pipeline was online, Wright declined to switch the county to the Flint River in the interim because of the cost and difficulty of treating river water. He felt Flint should do the same; during a March 2013 Flint City Council meeting, Wright presented various options. According to his figures, it would cost $7 million to upgrade Flint's plant to use the KWA, which was to draw water from Lake Huron. But, he said, it would cost $61 million to upgrade the facility to exclusively use Flint River water.

"Everyone in the industry knows the chemistry of any river, not just the Flint River, changes on a daily basis," Wright said, explaining that various studies indicated that the county would have to spend millions of dollars on wastewater treatment plant upgrades in order to treat river water. "You really have to be on top of it."

Though Genesee County is technically no longer on Detroit's system, the Motor City has continued to provide water to the county. And Wright says Genesee has continued to pay the bills even without an official contract in place.

"We don't have a contract with Detroit till this day," he said. "We've been on the system since they terminated the contract in 2014. I believe that no judge and no public health official will let one community turn the water off to another community as long as they're paying the bills."

* * *

In 2012, the Flint River was rejected as a possible source of water by a team from Flint's emergency manager's office after they consulted with the MDEQ. As Ambrose acknowledged in a 2014 deposition, use of the Flint River "was determined not feasible."

"It was a collective decision of the emergency management team based on conversations with the MDEQ that indicated they would not be supportive of the use of the Flint River on a long-term basis as a primary source of water," he said. When asked why the MDEQ had declined to support the plan, Ambrose said, "You'll have to ask them."

GM announced it would stop using Flint River water and instead draw water from outside the city — the chloride levels in the river water were causing metal auto parts to corrode.

Before taking on the emergency manager role, Ambrose had been brought in as a financial officer for the city. According to the deposition, he participated in cost evaluations and meetings with state officials regarding water supply options. Flint Department of Public Works director Howard Croft, who was appointed by an earlier emergency manager, was the primary line of communication between the city and the MDEQ throughout the process. Croft, who was in office from 2011 until he resigned in 2015, was in charge of oversight of the city's drinking water operations and facilities.

So why did the MDEQ seemingly reverse its position and sign off on the permit in June 2013? It's still unclear. The agency's initial reservations remain unknown, as do the factors that contributed to the the agency clearing the way for Flint residents to start using the river water.

The city officially switched its taps from Detroit to the river water in April 2014; video and photos of a ceremony commemorating the moment shows local officials like Earley, Walling, and Croft toasting with full glasses at the wastewater treatment plant.

* * *

"At the time the emergency manager was in place, they would not share any information with us," county commissioner Bryant Nolden said this past January from Flint's Berston Field House community center, which he runs.

Taking a break from chatting with residents as they picked up cases of bottled water, Nolden explained that the council was not consulted in the water switch decision. According to Nolden, the City Council rarely even had access to Earley or his team.

"This guy, I'm going to be perfectly honest with you, he was a straight dictator, because you couldn't even talk with him — and if you didn't agree with him, then you were against him," Nolden said. "So it was his way, or no way at all."

Several politicians and residents expressed similar sentiments to VICE News.

Nolden says Earley's main objective was to balance Flint's budget without necessarily taking citizens' concerns into consideration.

"It was a situation that was extremely trying and troubling because they took away our democratic form of government," he said. "We just had to go along with it."

Earley's newly hired Washington, DC-based lawyer, A. Scott Bolden, told VICE News that neither he nor his client are currently prepared to discuss the matter in detail. Bolden said the decisions made about the Flint River were made not by Earley, but by the mayor, the City Council, and previous emergency managers.

"Once he was in place, there was nothing presented to him — by his advisors, by the environmental and water folks, the testers — that would indicate in any way that the tests on the Flint River system would lead to these horrific results we're seeing in Flint," Bolden said. "Had he known, had something been presented to him, he certainly would have acted upon it."

* * *

It didn't take long for residents to start calling in with concerns after the city switched to the Flint River. Based on emails reviewed by VICE News, on May 15, 2014, EPA regional program manager Jennifer Crooks and her colleagues discussed a complaint from Flint resident Lathan Jefferson, who said he and others had developed rashes that they believed were from the new water. In getting her colleagues up to speed on the water switch that had happened about a month earlier, she acknowledged that "Flint River quality is not great" and that "more hardness, pH, and alkalinity" may make it different from Detroit water.

Discussions about these kind of calls occurred over the next several months. On October 14, 2014, Crooks sent an email to MDEQ district engineer Michael Prysby about a call from a resident, which she labeled "another complaint about our favorite water supply."

At this point the city had already issued three boil water notices as a result of E. Coli found in August. One day before Crooks's email, GM announced it was going to take itself off of Flint River water and instead draw water from outside the city. According to the company, the chloride levels in the water were causing metal auto parts to corrode. The automaker said it would hook up to the KWA pipeline once it was up and running.

Speaking to MLive at the time, however, Prysby said the water still met public health standards. Discussing a caller's question about chloride levels, MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel wrote in an email on October 15 that the agency needed to "be really careful on this," acknowledging that "GM's announcement has potential to put us in an awkward spot with respect to decisions Flint needs to make on its own."

Just two days into 2015, Flint sent out a notice that the water supply was in violation of a drinking water standard due to increased levels of Trihalomethanes (TTHMs). The notice said it was not an emergency and no further action was required unless someone had a compromised immune system, was an infant, or was elderly. The city advised those individuals to seek advice from a doctor.

The city started providing bottled water to its 1,300 preschool students after a January 29 note from the Michigan Department of Human Services recommended the move to facilities it oversees, which include centers for the elderly, child care providers, and foster homes. Recently released emails also show that around the same time, the Department of Technology, Management, and Budget installed water coolers at a state building in Flint to allow employees in the building to choose which water to drink. The move was in response to the January TTHMs notice, although Ambrose and others continued to insist the water was safe.

By February, the first talk of lead began to emerge. University of Michigan-Flint tests found lead in the water, and lead levels exceeding 100 parts per billion were found in the home of resident Lee Anne Walters. Assistant water treatment plant supervisor Mike Glasgow tested Walters' home, and the information was forwarded to the EPA, which told the MDEQ that the level could be a result of the river water leaching the inside of the pipes — after all, it was corroding the metal on GM auto parts — and depositing lead in the water.

* * *

When Flint switched to the new water source in 2014, the city was expected to treat the water with anti-corrosion control, material that binds to the metal piping and prevents corrosive water from damaging the pipes.

But a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from a research team at Virginia Tech University and a series of investigative reports from Curt Guyette at the ACLU revealed the city didn't use the proper level and type of anti-corrosives to treat the water. Emails show that the MDEQ told the EPA that Flint was using a corrosion control program. That was not the case.

After a second test in Walters' home showed even higher lead levels, the city of Flint admitted to her that there was not a corrosion control program in place. EPA regional water safety expert Miguel Del Toral pressed the MDEQ on the subject again in April, and the agency finally confirmed what the city had told Walters. There are an estimated 15,000 lead service lines — pipes that carry water — in Flint, although poor record keeping has made it a challenge to figure out exactly where those pipes are buried. Lead service lines were once a popular choice in cities with cold winters, but they went out of fashion after the 1930s. The American Water Works Association estimates that more than 6 million lead pipes are still in use across the country.

The Flint River flows through the city's downtown. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

Lacking the proper treatment, the corrosive water from the river leached lead from the city's pipes on its way through the water system. While it's probably the breakdown of iron pipes that's to blame for the changes in water color, homes hooked up to the city's lead service lines were exposed to much more severe but invisible contamination.

Despite Del Toral's efforts, state officials continued to deny there was a problem with Flint water. The MDEQ said Walters' lead levels were likely due to the plumbing in her home.

When Del Toral checked her pipes he found plastic, not lead.

A team of researchers at Virginia Tech University led by Professor Marc Edwards confirmed the levels, according to a timeline on Edwards' website Flint Water Study. Last summer the research team expanded their water testing in Flint, finding that a significant portion of the 252 homes it analyzed recorded levels beyond the EPA's guideline of 15 parts per billion. State officials dismissed the findings, saying that tests conducted by MDEQ hadn't found lead levels beyond the actionable level. But the city had gathered just 60 samples instead of the required 100, according to information uncovered by Curt Guyette at the ACLU.

"The state DEQ is just as perplexed by Edwards' results as he seems to be by the City's test results," Wurfel, an MDEQ spokesman at the time who later resigned, said in response. "When I said we were unsure how the Virginia Tech team got its results, that's not the same as being surprised that they got them. This group specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go."

As residents continued to raise concerns about the water supply, and state officials continued denying any problems, research put out by Flint's Hurley Medical Center on September 24, 2015 uncovered more troubling evidence. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at the hospital, analyzed routine blood tests from children under the age of five — a mandate for Medicare patients — taken by the hospital before and after the city switched to the Flint River. Her findings indicated there had been a spike in the blood-lead levels of the city's children.

"You don't mess around with lead. We know lead. We've known it through history. Lead is no joke. There is no safe level of lead," she said. "That's why it's an emergency."

As they had done repeatedly in the face of other evidence of problems, officials initially tried to dismiss Hanna-Attisha's data; Wurfel called the study "unfortunate" and "irresponsible." But the data marked a change in the narrative of Flint's water crisis.

On October 2, a week after she put out her findings, the state finally made its first public acknowledgement that there was a problem with the city's water. Initially, however, a memo from Snyder said the lead piping in people's homes or service lines had caused the high lead levels in the water.

The city soon switched back to Detroit water, and MDEQ's director acknowledged his agency had made a mistake in ensuring Flint water met federal standards.

"It recently has become clear that our drinking water program staff made a mistake while working with the city of Flint," Wyant said. "Simply stated, staff employed a federal protocol they believed was appropriate, and it was not."

The city has now been off of Flint River water for several months, but the damage done to the lead pipes has caused continued problems. Residents are still being advised to use water filters and drink bottled water, which is being passed out by state police and the National Guard or picked up at volunteer centers. The most recent round of tests by the EPA found high levels of lead in 26 sites, one of which saw a concentration of 4,000 parts per billion.

Even at low levels, lead exposure causes irreversible damage, particularly regarding brain cognition and behavioral development. Hanna-Attisha has estimated some 8,000 children may have been exposed to lead since the switch. But it will be extremely difficult if not impossible to pinpoint an exact number of victims; after 40 days, lead begins to leave the body.

Over the next five to 10 years, the city of Flint could see an increase in children with special needs and behavioral issues like ADHD. Hanna-Attisha said interventions, like universal preschool and improved nutrition, can be put in place now to reduce future problems.

"As a pediatrician, it's my job to take care of the kid in front of me, but it's also my job to make sure they have the brightest future ahead of them," she said. "When it's something like lead and you know what that future is, you can't just sit back and say 'Oh, let's research this.' You have to act [and] put these interventions in place now."

* * *

One frigid morning this past January, Monica McBride, a 34-year-old mother who was born and raised in Flint, stopped at the Berston Field House. She was among dozens of residents bundled up in winter gear to pick up free cases of bottled water. The nearly 100-year old facility, known for being the training ground for professional basketball players and boxing champions from the area, has been turned into one of the city's many makeshift water distribution centers.

Already concerned about the safety of her five children due to the city's crime rate, McBride has something new to worry about: lead poisoning. Her family uses bottled water for drinking, cooking, and brushing teeth. Her children are all over the age of five, older than the most vulnerable age group for lead exposure, and she has continued to use city water when giving them baths — but she admits to being nervous that this could have devastating effects.

"I have to bathe them," she said. "How much bottled water you need to fill up a bathtub? How much you need for a shower?"

She says she plans to get her kids tested soon, and worries they'll have high blood-lead levels.

Residents like McBride have focused much of their blame for the crisis, and what they perceive as a cover up, on Michigan's state officials — particularly the governor. As water came out of their taps brown and smelling like dirt, politicians from the top down told them it was fine to drink. Residents routinely point to the fact that it was the state-appointed emergency manager, not the city council, who signed off on the decision to switch the water without any public hearings or vote.

"It's devastating, you wouldn't think your city or your governor would do people like that… they expose your kids to a year and a half of [bad] water," McBride said. "It took one doctor to say, 'Hey.' If that doctor didn't speak out and let us know what was going on with the levels rising, how would we have known?"

Last week on Capitol Hill, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz opened a hearing blasting Earley and former EPA regional director Susan Hedman for blowing off invitations to testify. Chaffetz threatened to send US Marshals to hunt Earley down for another hearing later this month. After the latest deposition and threat from Chaffetz, Earley agreed to appear at the next hearing.

Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings called for a comprehensive investigation of the crisis.

"We need to determine how children in the United States of America in the year of 2016 have been exposed to drinking water poisoned with lead," Cummings said. "And not by accident, by the actions of their own government."

Cummings then pointed to Flint's emergency managers and their decision to use the Flint River, noting that Snyder made the appointments for these positions.

"Governor Snyder was a driving force behind Michigan's emergency manager law, which he signed in 2011 and invoked to take over the city of Flint from it's local elected leaders," he said. "He also led the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which failed to protect the people of Flint."

Lee Anne Walters, who testified about her children's health, addressed the loss of trust in all levels of government as she called out the city and its emergency manager, the state and its agencies, and the EPA.

"In 2014, in a city with no democracy, forced under an emergency manager hand picked by Governor Snyder, a decision was made to switch the water source, without the proper testing and enforcement of regulation," Walters said.

She detailed the errors MDEQ made in failing to uphold federal corrosion control laws, and the fact that the citizens of Flint were assured for 18 months that their water was safe. Walters also discussed how Flint residents repeatedly told the city and the state that there was something wrong, only to have their concerns dismissed.

"The citizens in Flint are relying on each of you, because we have no choice," she told the congressional committee. "Broken policy and procedures are smothering an outcry of an entire community suffering financially, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I urge you to help restore some of the trust lost and protect the citizens of the United States by never allowing this to happen again."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB

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