‘We’ll scream loud’: Flint residents protest 5 years of water crisis

By: - April 25, 2019 4:48 pm

Residents held a rally drawing attention to the Flint water crisis starting five years ago | Nick Manes

Updated 8:38 p.m.

Thursday might have technically marked the five-year anniversary of the official start of Flint’s water crisis — but don’t call it that around Bishop Bernadel Jefferson.

“This is a commemoration,” said Bishop Jefferson of the city’s Faith Deliverance Center. “Anniversaries are celebrations, and we aren’t celebrating [having] five years with this water.”

Jefferson was addressing a crowd of activists, faith leaders and members of the media during a Thursday morning rally and press conference in front of the city’s water treatment plant.

Sarah Bailey and Bernadel Jefferson
Sarah Bailey (left) and Bishop Bernadel Jefferson (right) at a rally drawing attention to the Flint water crisis starting five years ago | Nick Manes

Five years ago today, Flint officials gathered in that facility to make the ill-fated switch of the city’s water supply from the Detroit River and Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River, a move that would eventually cause the widespread presence of lead in its drinking water system.

By 2016, the nation’s eyes were on Flint as residents of the industrial, predominantly African-American city were unable to drink water from the tap because of the high levels of lead.

Democrats even held a presidential debate in March of that year to highlight the crisis. Documentary films and novels were produced about the disaster.

In 2019, the national attention has largely faded. The state’s new Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) says the city’s drinking water is well within the federal safety standards.

But many in Flint are still wary.

How the crisis began

April 25, 2014 marked the official start of Flint’s water crisis when in a money-saving bid under the direction of former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, the city made the aforementioned switch to the Flint River’s water source.

Under the Emergency Manager law signed under Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, appointed emergency managers largely operated without oversight from locally elected officials.  

Jefferson draws a direct line from the Emergency Manager law to the water crisis.

“This started in 2011,” she said. “2014 was just a result of bad management.”

In 2014, officials from the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) failed to follow federal regulations put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that required corrosion control chemicals in water. That water then passed through aging pipes and lead service lines, causing them to leak lead into the city’s drinking water supply.

A 2016 study by pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha found that elevated blood levels doubled after the water switch, affecting 4.9 percent of children. Some neighborhoods saw an increase of as high as 6.6 percent, according to Hanna-Attisha’s research.

Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Hanna-Attisha praised the work of officials in efficiently replacing the city’s pipes, but acknowledged there’s still work to be done.

The water crisis was also tied to an outbreak of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ Disease in 2014 and 2015. That outbreak led to 12 deaths, with dozens more getting sick. Snyder remains a defendant in an ongoing federal class-action lawsuit tied to the city’s water crisis.

Eden Wells, 2018
Eden Wells

Criminal charges have been brought against 15 people connected to the crisis, including top Snyder officials like former Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Officer Eden Wells.

Since 2016, the city of Flint has been working to replace all of its lead pipes, which number roughly 29,000, under its “Fast Start” program. The city expects to finish that work sometime this year.

Since taking office in January, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has touted the steps her administration has taken to increase oversight of state departments like the DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), both of which bore responsibility for the crisis. DEQ is now officially known as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).  

In January, Whitmer said she would comply with the still-ongoing probe of the crisis by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which after the 2018 election is now run by Democrats.

Whitmer’s first executive directive after taking office was partially inspired by Flint’s water crisis, as well. It mandates that department-level state employees “who become aware of an imminent threat to public health, safety or welfare must immediately report it to their department director or agency head.”

A long recovery

For several faith leaders and activists in Flint, the recovery has been too slow. They say the city remains far from whole.

A Flint water protest
Pastor Monica Villareal at a rally drawing attention to the Flint water crisis starting five years ago | Nick Manes

The Rev. Monica Villareal of Flint’s Salem Lutheran Church called on President Donald Trump to declare another state of emergency for the city, which could make it eligible for additional federal funds. Former President Barack Obama previously declared a federal state of emergency in 2016.

Villareal said that everyone impacted by the water crisis should be eligible for Medicare. She called on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to live up to her campaign promises and have the state continue to supply bottled water to Flint.  The state discontinued its bottled water program for the city in April 2018, but Nestle has said they will continue to provide water through the end of August.

Jefferson said she and many other residents still lack faith in the government.

“Trust is earned and as of today, they haven’t earned my trust,” Jefferson told the Advance in an interview, adding that she and others will continue to fact-check the claims of city, state and federal officials over the safety of Flint’s water.

“Until it gets fixed, we’ll just call it broken,” Jefferson said.* “We’ll scream loud [until] it sticks and we’ll be able to validate it.”

Speaking with reporters later on Thursday at a park cleanup event in Flint, Whitmer acknowledged that there’s good reason for the lack of trust by Flint residents.

Gov. Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Gilchrist
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist in Flint, April 25, 2019 | Nick Manes

“You know once trust is lost, it’s incredibly hard to rebuild,” Whitmer said. “You know I didn’t create the problem in Flint but I am going to remedy and earn back the trust of the people of this city.”

Whitmer, for her part, acknowledged on Thursday that even once all the lead pipes in the city are replaced, there will still be considerable work to do in the city. She said her budget priorities can help to accomplish that.

“This is a city full of people who are trying to raise families, who are trying to get ahead,” Whitmer told reporters. “And even if we fix the water crisis, you know, by the end of July, we’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure people have jobs, to make sure they have good schools, to make sure we close the skills gaps so we can bring investment.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said that Flint residents are strong, but he’ll keep fighting for the city.

A Flint water protest
Residents brought five lanterns symbolizing the five years that have passed since the Flint water crisis began | Nick Manes

“Five years ago, a lever was pulled and the lives of the people in my city were forever changed. The true grit and determination of a community shines brightest once the spotlights are turned off and the sensationalism dies down,” he said.

“Flint is full of real, everyday heroes who have experienced the worst but stayed the course to fight for the justice they deserve. I am inspired by my community’s strength. We will never stop fighting for justice.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Bishop Bernadel Jefferson’s name.

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.