Flint targets water scofflaws despite tainted supply

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

In a city where residents have feared the water coming from their taps for more than year and a half, an undisclosed number will soon be receiving shutoff notices for failing to pay for it.

Flint officials confirmed this week they will interrupt service for certain delinquent accounts despite the controversy surrounding lead contamination in the city’s water. Since the city began drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014, residents fretted over using it.

Early concerns about odors, discoloration and foul tastes escalated this summer into evidence the water was tainted by lead and turning up in the blood of local children. So to residents such as Jennifer Marshall, the idea of paying for such uncertainty about the purity of the water seems ludicrous.

Marshall was working on a tight budget even before Flint’s water became questionable. Even with daily trips down the block to pick up free water at the fire station, she said she is still paying $25 a week for bottles at the store. She called the shutoff plan “ridiculous.”

“Why pay for it if you can’t use it?” the mother and stepmother of three asked Thursday. “(Water payments) are just a waste of our money if we can’t use it or cook with it.”

A city spokeswoman acknowledged the difficult situation Thursday, but said fiscal demands needed to be met.

“With the current climate both literally and figuratively, resuming shutoff notices will be difficult but will have to happen soon,” said Kristin Moore, the city’s public relations director, in an email response to questions. “Regardless of the lead water crisis, the city’s operation of its sewer system has not been impacted and must still recover costs through billing.”

Moore would not confirm how many notices are likely to go out, but the Flint Journal reported in November that Flint planned to issue about 1,800 new shutoff notices at that time. City officials opted to shelve the effort over the holidays, but the respite appears to be over.

“Per state law ... the city must set rates and charges for the city’s water system in order to provide revenue sufficient to maintain ongoing operations and maintenance of its system as well as payment of outstanding bond payment obligations,” Moore wrote.

Legionnaires’ disease up

Flint’s water problems have become a national issue thanks to a steady flow of new developments. Gov. Rick Snyder last week declared a state of emergency for Flint. He is preparing a request for federal aid. And the governor has talked to a White House liaison on state issues, Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson and the regional Federal Emergency Management Agency director about coordinating federal expertise and aid, spokesman Dave Murray said.

On Wednesday, Snyder revealed local and state health officials documented a spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area that coincided with the city’s use of the Flint River. State officials said there is no evidence of a connection.

The governor’s announcement surprised Genesee County officials, who were preparing their own statement.

“We had no advance notice of that whatsoever,” said Mark Valacak, the county’s chief health officer.

Before the city began drawing its water from the Flint River in spring 2014, Genesee County typically saw between six and 13 annual cases of the bacterial respiratory disease that leads to pneumonia. From June 2014 through March 2015, there were 45 cases of Legionnaires’, including seven deaths, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

From May 2015 through November 2015, the county recorded another 42 cases — three of them fatalities.

On Thursday, Valacak said the data on health trends, particularly instances of communicable diseases, are regularly shared with the public at monthly health board meetings and with local hospitals. Legionnaires’ disease is contracted through water, not person to person.

But health officials were wary of announcing the Legionnaires’ findings before now.

“You don’t want to create a panic in a community that is already so stressed by (the water issues) when you don’t have an understanding of the source or a direct connection,” he said. “Because that just leads to more speculation.”

Crisis response questioned

Criticism of the Republican governor has ratcheted up, especially among Democrats. A state-appointed emergency manager agreed to join a regional water authority and the Flint River was tapped after the city disconnected from the Detroit water system.

According to an independent task force review, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials made errors that helped create the crisis, failing to require corrosion controls during treatment to prevent lead from contaminating the water.

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Tim Greimel said the governor should resign if he knew about the crisis before he acted to resolve it. But the Auburn Hills Democrat’s spokeswoman said he made the comment with the caveat that “we need more information on what did he know and, more importantly, when did he know it.”

State Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, D-Democrat, who is the minority vice chairwoman of the Michigan House Oversight Committee, said Thursday there should be criminal prosecution, holding responsible those who triggered the April 2014 switch to the river. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit is investigating.

First-term U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said she has asked for a U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform committee hearing on Flint’s contaminated water.

At the Capitol, more than 100 protesters from Flint and elsewhere turned up Thursday to slam Snyder.

When asked about these at a Thursday event in Detroit, Snyder said he welcomed probes.

“… People that have the appropriate authorities, I encourage them to investigate because we want to learn as much as possible from this and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

The governor “acted aggressively as soon as he learned” about the Flint water lead problem on Oct. 1, Murray said.


Detroit News Staff Writers Jonathan Oosting and Mark Hicks contributed.