Pipes are now being replaced and officials say the water is safe, but residents still worry, drink bottled water and doubt their elected leaders.
On April 25, 2014, a group of smiling officials in Flint, Mich., stood in front of television cameras, held their glasses aloft and toasted the switch to the city’s new water source, the Flint River.
“Here’s to Flint!” Dayne Walling, the mayor, said, taking a gulp of river water.
The Flint water crisis was born that day. Almost immediately, Flint residents began telling their elected officials that there was something wrong with the water, which smelled terrible, tasted like metal and seemed to give them skin rashes. They confronted elected officials outside City Hall, hoisting bottles full of rust-colored water from their taps, only to be told, again and again, that the water was fine.
The water was not fine. Flint officials had failed to add needed corrosion controls to the river water. Lead from the city’s old pipes leached into the water, causing alarmingly high lead levels in the blood of many residents. The outcry that followed forced a change in the city’s leadership, criminal charges against state and local officials and a yearslong effort to replace Flint’s dangerous lead pipes.
But in Flint, the water crisis is by no means in the past.
“It’s a community that’s still dealing with the trauma and the aftermath of having been poisoned at the hands of the government,” Karen Weaver, who replaced Mr. Walling as mayor largely because of anger over the water crisis, said in an interview this week. Ms. Weaver continues to tell residents to drink only bottled or filtered water.
On Thursday, pastors and activists gathered outside the city’s water treatment plant to call for more help. Some wore shirts that said “Flint Is Still Broken.” Half a decade into the water crisis, here is what has changed in the city — and what has not.
Five years ago, Melissa Mays was a concert promoter in Flint who drank from the tap and never worried about lead or Legionella. But when the water turned foul, Ms. Mays spoke out. She organized protests, filed lawsuits and became one of the most visible faces of her city’s troubles.
Today, she drinks only bottled water. She showers quickly. She does not trust what the government tells her. “It’s one huge nightmare piled on top of another one,” Ms. Mays said this week.
She has scaled back her work in music. She now helps people find social services. There is also a personal toll. “I used to be a lot more optimistic and cheerful,” she said, “but now I’m literally just pissed.”
For a bit, several years ago, Ms. Mays said there was a sense that Flint might get enough national notice over the water crisis to overcome it. But she said not enough has been done. Attention faded. Faith has dwindled.
“We’re back to where we first started, where we’re yelling and screaming,” Ms. Mays said. “And it seems like nobody can hear us.”
As the state of Michigan tells it, the water in Flint now meets federal standards. Levels of lead and copper are down. “Flint’s water continues to test the same as or better than similar cities across the state and country,” the state says.
But residents are wary. After all, in 2014 and 2015, officials also had insisted the water was safe, brushing aside the concerns of residents. Bottled water remains in high demand, and suspicion abounds about the city’s lead pipes, its decaying water infrastructure and pretty much everything else.
“We don’t trust,” Ms. Weaver, the mayor, said. “Trust was broken on every single level of government.”
Ms. Weaver vowed after taking office to replace all of the city’s lead and galvanized-steel service lines, and she has made progress. More than 8,000 service lines have been replaced so far, and thousands more have been examined and found to not be made of lead. She hopes to have the rest — as many as 7,000 more — finished this summer.
But as work on the pipes progressed, officials have tried to wean residents off the free bottled water that National Guard troops distributed at the height of the crisis.
The state closed its bottled water distribution sites last year. Bottles donated by Nestlé continue to be handed out, but only from a few locations and on certain days, and with no promise of it continuing past August.
Flint’s struggles did not start with the water. In the middle of the 20th century, Flint was a small but thriving city, a hub of manufacturing where solid, middle-class jobs at General Motors were plentiful. When the automotive industry faltered, so did Flint.
After thousands of factory jobs left Flint, so did many of its residents, and neighborhoods throughout the city are still marked by blight and abandoned houses, often vandalized or taken over by squatters. The city continues to lose residents: In 2017, Flint’s population fell to 96,448. In 1960, the city was twice as big.
“Water was a symptom of this much bigger problem of a community with a really rich history that rightfully feels that it’s continually being left behind,” said Representative Dan Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, whose district includes Flint.
Though the city has been lifted by its universities and a small but energetic push to rebuild small businesses, the solid jobs in manufacturing that were lost decades ago have not been replaced. With a declining tax base, the city’s fiscal condition slid, too. Ultimately, Flint’s finances were so perilous that the state sent in emergency managers to oversee city operations, a move that irked local leaders and left many in the Democratic stronghold complaining that Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, was taking away local control.
An emergency manager was still guiding the city at the point at which Flint switched water sources, a decision that was aimed at saving money.
“Flint was, I think, before the water crisis, just on the edge of a crisis of some kind,” Mr. Kildee said. “And all it took was this one thing to tip the scale.”
The authorities pledged to bring justice to Flint. Those at fault in the water crisis would be held responsible, they promised. “These charges are only the beginning,” Bill Schuette, Michigan’s former attorney general, said three years ago, as he announced the first criminal cases. “There will be more to come — that I can guarantee you.”
And there were more. By now, 15 people who worked in state and local government roles have been charged with crimes in Flint’s crisis. And the charges have reached high levels of Michigan’s government, and suggested that officials had failed to warn residents of known risks and allowed their desire to save money in financially strapped Flint to come before the safety of water.
Still, five years later, no one has been sentenced to prison time. Seven people have pleaded no contest to misdemeanors as parts of plea deals, while others — including some of the highest-level employees — have cases still pending.
“Whether they plea bargain out or actually do jail time, I think it would mean a lot to the community,” said Eric Mays, a Flint City Council member who is not related to Melissa Mays. He added: “We are in a watching-every-step-of-the-way mode.”
Some of the Flint leaders who stood before the cameras, toasting the city’s new water supply, are gone — at least partly because of the water.
A re-election bid by Mr. Walling, a Flint native and Rhodes scholar who seemed to have a promising political career ahead, fell apart in late 2015 as test results confirmed what residents had been worried about for months.
Others who are gone: Mr. Snyder, Michigan’s governor at the time; a manager appointed by the state to oversee Flint’s finances; and numerous state and local employees who were involved in the city’s water system.
Mr. Snyder was prevented from seeking re-election by term limits. But Flint was perhaps the most difficult chapter of his eight years in office. Mr. Snyder was not charged with wrongdoing, but some of his administration’s leaders were, and some residents blamed him.
Mr. Mays, the councilman, said he had seen progress since the city was released from state oversight and since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, took office this year.
Ms. Weaver, too, sounded hopeful.
“I don’t say it’s over,” Ms. Weaver said, but “we’re moving from crisis to recovery, and you can see the progress that we’ve made.”