Flint — Authorities believe people who don’t live in Flint are taking cases of bottled water from government-operated distribution centers for use outside the city.
Michigan State Police Capt. Chris Kelenske said he and other officials have seen “a lot of anecdotal evidence” of cars packed with bottled water leaving the city, but he did not have any data to share at a recent Flint Interagency Coordinating Committee meeting where he made the allegation.
“We have seen bottled water outside of Flint, heading out of Flint in cars,” Kelenske said Friday. “I know they can always get it at a local store, but based on the amounts of water we’ve seen in some of these cars, it’s clear to me that we have to re-evaluate our (residency evaluation) process at this time.”
Because the distribution centers do not require ID cards to obtain water, it’s not a crime for nonresidents to take bottled water from Flint’s distribution centers, according to Dale George, a spokesman for the Emergency Management and Homeland Security division of the Michigan State Police.
“Since it is not a crime, nothing can be done,” George said.
The state police oversee water distribution in Flint and are characterizing the issue as a “misuse of resources” rather than a theft problem, George said.
Kristin Moore, a spokeswoman for Mayor Karen Weaver, said the mayor and others do not want to require identification proof because they know some Flint residents do not have ID cards and want those residents to still receive safe drinking water “without fear of people coming after them.”
“Whether people are taking advantage of that, we don’t know,” she added.
But Kelenske is urging tighter residency verification at water distribution centers to make sure only people who’ve been struck by the water crisis are getting state-issued bottled water.
Kelenske said “we are pushing more bottles of water out now than we ever have.” A daily average of 21,500 cases were distributed in late July, which exceeded the peak daily amount distributed last year in August.
Kelenske said nonresidents’ consumption would account for the city’s highest bottled water consumption rate since Flint’s water crisis began more than two years ago after it temporarily switched to the Flint River for its water supply from April 2014 to October 2015.
Flint has already pushed past last year’s daily distribution high at a time when state and local officials are aggressively spreading the word that Flint water is safe to drink with a filter.
In total, 6 million cases of water have been delivered in Flint from nine state-run distribution centers where residents can get water without identification.
The city’s water became contaminated with lead after state-appointed emergency managers switched Flint’s drinking water source in April 2014 from the Detroit area water system to the Flint River.
When state environmental regulators failed to order that the water be treated with anti-corrosion chemicals, the city’s aging pipes leached lead into the water and Flint switched back to the Detroit area system in October 2015 as a result.
A settlement over the Flint water crisis allows the state to shut down water distribution centers later this year if water tests continue to be under the federal action limit of 15 parts per billion.
On Tuesday, Jerry Lee, a union iron worker and resident of Flint, was dropping in after work at West Court Street Church of God for his weekly distribution of bottled water.
“If it is happening, it’s a shame and the people doing it are taking advantage of a town that’s already been hit hard, hit bad,” he said. “I mean, water already is pretty cheap, but it’s kind of worse if you’re taking it out of the hands of folks who need it.”
Lee added he feels it’s not too much to ask to show proof of residency if the state continues to provide free cases of water to residents while residential pipes are being replaced.
“We should be able to get this water when we need it. It was (the government’s) fault that the water was poisoned, and we need to be protected from the folks trying to take the water that they don’t need,” he said. “We are going to need the bottled stuff for years to come till it’s all fixed, period.”
Freelance writer Jacob Carah contributed.