A Costly Decision
Rather than saving money, it proved to be a far more costly exercise than anyone could have imagined, with life-changing consequences for many of the inhabitants of this mid-western US city.
In effect, the whole thing could have been foreseeable, as the Washington Post argued on January 14th 2016, that "Flint [had] spent years under emergency manager control, a person whose primary charge appears to have been cutting costs."
However, that's the benefit of hindsight, since the economizing aspect wasn't to the fore when Mayor Dayne Walling turned off the supply from Detroit on April 25th 2014. At that point, it was promoted as a return to self-sufficiency for Flint, with the Mayor commenting: “It’s a historic moment for the city of Flint to return to its roots and use our own river as our drinking water supply."
The fact is, that the city had found itself on the horns of a dilemma. It had made the decision in 2013 to drop the Detroit supply in favour of a new, cheaper provider, the Karegnondi Water Authority, which was intending to source its supply from Lake Huron, the same source as Detroit.
With the Karegnondi provision not ready, and Detroit preparing to turn off the flow in March 2014, Flint had little option but to choose an ultimately catastrophic option, if its inhabitants were to have any supply at all.
Temporary Supply, Lasting Consequences
The decision was made to treat water from the Flint River, costing millions of dollars, to provide Flint with its drinking supply as a temporary measure until the Karegnondi supply was in place.
The complaints began almost immediately. By 2015, the criticism had become a cascade as people began to suffer from a range of health problems, which, they were firmly convinced, were down to the deterioration in quality since the switch.
Melissa Mays, for instance, reported to the New York Times in March 2015 that after she drank the water, which by this time was strangely coloured and had an odd smell, she began to suffer from rashes and her hair started to fall out.
At this point, the city was still claiming that the drinking supply was safe, although it had issued a directive to boil the tap supply after faecal coliform bacteria had been discovered in some parts of Flint's drinking supplies.
The bacteria had been treated with chlorine, leading to high levels of total trihalomethanes or T.T.H.M., which the city authorities claimed was safe. It also produced the distinctive chlorine smell, "like a swimming pool" which Melissa Mays and other inhabitants of Flint had noticed.
Unconvinced Citizens Take Action
Ms Mays, along with many other concerned citizens unconvinced by the authority's "safe for drinking" claims, made a decision to purchase bottled water, an expensive option for a city where many were considered to be living in poverty.
Melissa Mays reported to the NYT that the whole family and its animals, including a goldfish, now used only the bottled variety, adding “It takes four to five bottles of water to fill up a pot for spaghetti.”
In January 2015, Flint's authorities conceded, in a mail to all their customers, that they were in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act because of the high levels of trihalomethanes in the drinking supply. Shortly afterwards, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department volunteered to reconnect the supply to Flint, waiving the reconnection fee. Flint's authorities rejected the offer.
That was just the beginning of Flint's long nightmare, though.
By late 2015 an even more devastating crisis was emerging. For some months, concerned parents had been taking their children to doctors to discuss a range of unusual and complex symptoms. Shortened attention span, learning disabilities, behavioural issues, anaemia; the parents knew that their children were being poisoned, but by what?
In December 2015, Walling's successor, Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency and the extent of the crisis was finally known.
Some of the citizens of Flint had almost unheard of levels of lead in their bodies as a result of drinking water from the Flint River supply.
The Full Truth Finally Revealed
In January 2016, the Washington Post explained the extent of the damage in a lucid and clearly worded article, with graphics.
Readings from Detroit's supply registered the lead content at 2.3 parts per billion - a situation which the paper described as "highly acceptable". At five parts per billion, the reading would still be within EPA guidelines though at this level there might be a reason for concern regarding children's intake.
In the summer of 2015, researchers had found 27 parts lead per billion or more in over 250 Flint homes. However some homes in the overall survey had even higher readings, and the highest home sample had a staggering 157 parts per billion!
At this level, neurological damage, kidney damage and many other serious health problems ensue, with lasting consequences. The highest level recorded in Flint's drinking supply astonished the academics, who had never witnessed anything like it at 13,000 parts per billion.
With the city in a state of emergency, bottled water was distributed to the people of Flint as the world, at last, began to realise the full horror of their situation.
How had this happened?
Lead has been used for water pipes since the days of the Roman Empire. Its malleability and impermeability made it an obvious and useful choice. However, when the slightly acidic liquid passes through lead, the lead reacts, becoming a soluble compound; and the lead leaches out.
That's what had happened when the more acidic water, due to the higher chlorine content of the Flint River, travelled through some of the aged pipes of Flint's water supply, leaving many of the city's inhabitants with permanent health problems.
In October 2016, the city reconnected to the Detroit supply.
Summary: Flint: the full story of how the failed provision of our most precious resource, H2O, became a nightmare for the people of one American city. With the extent of damage done, how can there ever be justice for Flint’s children?
Read an overview of the story from Flint's news here.
A summary of the investigator's results can be found here.
For early reactions from Flint's people before the extent of the tragedy was known to see here.
The Washington Post's full facts are revealed here.
And their clearly written exposition of the extent of the damage is found here.