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Flint's mayor will bring the water crisis to prime time at the DNC

Hillary Clinton made the Flint water crisis a campaign focus in the primaries. Now Mayor Karen Weaver wants to remind Americans that the emergency is not over for 100,000 people.

by Kayla Ruble
Jul 27 2016, 10:05pm

Photo by Paul Sancya/AP

It's been six months since Hillary Clinton took a moment during a televised Democratic primary debate to highlight a growing public health crisis that was only just starting to grab national attention — the citywide lead contamination of the water system in Flint, Michigan.

Since then, public attention has shifted away from the crisis, which was sparked by the city's decision to switch away from Detroit's water system to use the Flint River instead. But Flint's mayor Karen Weaver will aim to bring her city back into the national spotlight on Wednesday, when she speaks at the Democratic National Convention as part of a prime-time lineup of speakers that includes President Barack Obama. She will use her time, she said, to remind Americans that the crisis in her city is not over.

"One of the things we want people to know is that we still have a water crisis going on in the city of Flint. Things are better but we're not where we need to be," she told VICE News ahead of her speech. "We're still on bottled and filtered water, and we're on year three."

Weaver took office in November last year, two months after local doctors uncovered high blood-lead levels in children, validating public concern about problems with water quality after the switch. Corrosive river water pumped out of the treatment plant leached lead from the city's aging pipes as it passed through the water system and flowed from people's taps, putting thousands of people at risk for lead poisoning.

As state officials were beginning to acknowledge that there was in fact a serious problem, one of Weaver's first acts in office was to declare a city emergency, before pushing the county and state to do the same. She was at the helm in January as national and state response teams went door to door distributing bottled water and filters to Flint's more than 30,000 residences. By March she had kicked off a program to replace the lead service lines that distribute water.

Watch VICE News' On The Line: Kayla Ruble Discusses the Flint Water Emergency:

When Hillary Clinton focused on Flint during the January debate, just one day after the federal government declared a state of emergency, she became the first presidential candidate to do so.

"I spent a lot of time last week being outraged by what's happening in Flint, Michigan, and I think every single American should be outraged," Clinton said then.

Clinton then built out a volunteer operation in the city, with supporters passing out bottles of water instead of the usual campaign material. Ahead of the March primary in Michigan, Clinton announced an employment program that would fund water crisis-related jobs for local residents.

The efforts seemingly paid off. While Clinton lost the state primary to Bernie Sanders, she won Flint, with 65 percent of the vote.

Related:Flint Sees the National Political Spotlight Two Years After Its Water Was Poisoned

"[Hillary Clinton] reached out to us as soon as the water emergency was declared and she's continued to be a strong advocate for the people of Flint," Weaver said, explaining that in addition to bringing attention back to Flint, getting Clinton elected is her other motivation for tonight's speech. The pair met when Clinton made a visit to Flint earlier this year.

For Weaver, her own focus now is on fixing the city's devastated infrastructure and pushing forward with a plan to replace the lead service lines.

"We don't want this issue to go away until this issue is resolved," she said. "We can't let it go out of the spotlight because what happened in Flint should never happen in another community. "

Weaver is not the only one representing Flint this year at the DNC. A group of residents also made the trip to Philadelphia to bring attention to their city. Maegan Wilson, a water activist who brought her daughter along, said she and her fellow activists did not necessarily show up to support the party or a candidate, but to remind people that the city of 100,000 is still reeling.

"Life is high tension. People have a lot of anxiety about the government...about if this water will ever be safe," said Wilson. "It's like your whole life revolves around water. Either you're carting the water, or you're picking the water up, or you're opening water."

The main concern for Wilson as she spoke to groups around Philadelphia this week is the state of emergency declaration, which is set to expire on August 14. As the deadline looms, she said the community feels on edge about what will happen next. Wilson said she was optimistic that Weaver's speech would bring the situation to the forefront just in time.

"She's trying to bridge that gap with the people and I really believe she's going to nail [her speech]," she said. "I think she's going to... put the spotlight on Flint and that's just what we have to have."