Snyder ending bottled water for Flint

Jonathan Oosting and Beth LeBlanc
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan will stop providing Flint residents with free bottled water when current supplies run out, Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration said Friday, citing nearly two years of test results showing falling lead levels in city tap water.

Preliminary data from early 2018 testing showed 90 percent of high-risk Flint water sites at or below 4 part per billion of lead, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. If results hold true through end of June, it would be the fourth consecutive six-month period levels have tested below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.

As a result, the state plans to close four remaining water bottle distribution centers when supplies are exhausted, which could happen within the next week. Water filters and cartridges will remain available at Flint City Hall.

“I have said all along that ensuring the quality of the water in Flint and helping the people and the city move forward were a top priority for me and my team,” Snyder said in a statement. “We have worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”

The decision rankled several Flint residents, who have relied on bottled or filtered water for drinking and cooking needs since late 2015, when experts first warned about elevated lead levels in drinking water that the state initially denied.

“This is a travesty,” said LeeAnne Walters, who helped expose the crisis after dangerously high lead levels were discovered in her home tap water. “It doesn’t matter what the tests say. There’s still a huge gap and a lack of trust in people who are telling us its safe.”

Walters, who has vowed her family will never drink Flint water again, said she is still struggling with chlorine issues in her tap water. Her family goes through about 40 cases of bottled water a week for drinking and cooking, she said, and pays to fill 20-gallon bottles to bathe their children once a week.

Longtime Flint resident Keri Webber said she has been helping deliver state-funded or donated bottled water to roughly 60 families in Flint since 2015, including home-bound, disabled and elderly residents.

“The whole situation is beyond frustrating,” Webber said Friday. “I can’t afford water for my family, and I certainly can’t afford it for others.”

Declining lead results

Flint lead levels have dropped below 4 ppb so far this year, according to the state environmental department. For the second half of 2017, 90 percent of high-risk sites had tested below 6 ppb. Officials also said the state has conducted “extensive flushing and testing” of unfiltered water at schools, day cares and senior homes in Flint.

The water is also testing below the 10 parts per billion standard that Snyder wants to enforce in Michigan. The Legislature hasn’t act on his proposal, so he is pursuing it through an administrative rule process that he hopes will be completed by 2020 — when he will be out of office.

“Flint’s water is undoubtedly one of the most monitored systems in the country, and for the last 22 months several types of extensive testing data points have consistently supported that Flint’s water system has stabilized,” said Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and former DEQ interim director.

But local lawmakers joined residents in blasting the decision to stop providing bottled water.

“It’s beyond belief that the governor expects the folks in Flint to trust the government now, when they lied to our faces about lead in our water just a few years ago,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said in a statement. “That trust was broken, and families in Flint still don’t feel that the water in their homes is safe to drink.”

Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, said he’s requesting the governor continue providing bottled water until the state has successfully addressed the “crisis of confidence” among Flint residents. Test results do little to restore that confidence, he said.

State officials “point to data and science,” the second-term House member said. “From the perspective of Flint residents, it was the same data, personnel and science that failed them. They don’t trust them still.”

Should the state fail to continue providing services to Flint residents, Neeley said he supports any legal action the city may take “to compel the state to do its job and continue water service to its citizens.”

Michigan has sent more than $350 million in state funds to Flint since late 2015, in addition to $100 million from the federal government, that has paid for bottled water, water system upgrades and local health initiatives.

Some of the funding was required under a four-year, $97 million settlement reached last year between the state and a coalition that had sued in an attempt to secure safe drinking water. Under the deal, the state agreed to spend an additional $47 million on top of already budgeted funds to replace lead pipes and provide free bottled water.

Environmental department spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the state expects its current supply of bottled water will run out within four to seven days. But it depends on the “burn rate,” she said, noting supplies could run out faster if there is a sudden surge in pick-ups as a result of the announcement.

Mayor: ‘Great anxiety’

Mayor Karen Weaver, whose administration is working to replace underground lead service lines at homes across the city, published a letter to Snyder earlier Friday telling him residents had “great anxiety” over the prospect of closing water distribution sites.

“As I have stated before and will continue to say, this is not what I want for our city and I stand by my position that free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced,” Weaver wrote.

“We know that the water in Flint is much better than when I made the Emergency Declaration in December 2015, and that is a good thing. However, we also know that trust has to be restored before residents are ready to rely only on filtered residents.”

Snyder, in a response letter to Weaver, said Michigan taxpayers were not legally obligated to fund bottled water or Flint distribution sites past September 2017, but “in the spirit of good faith and our continued partnership, the state has continued to provide funding for hundreds of thousands of cases of bottled water for the daily use of residents.”

The governor also sent Weaver recent water testing data and methodology.

“Since Flint’s water system has been and continues to be well within the standards set by the federal government, we will now focus even more of our efforts on continuing with the health, education and economic development assistance needed to help move Flint forward,” he said. “I remain steadfast in that commitment.”

With lead service line replacement set to resume this spring, Webber said she and other residents remain concerned that underground work could dislodge lead flakes from existing pipes and again contaminate home tap water.

Residents aren’t comfortable drinking Flint water “on a good day,” let alone a day where old pipes could be disturbed, Webber said.

Asked about those concerns, DEQ spokeswoman Tiffany Brown noted the state will continue to provide free tap filters to anyone who is worried about lead or “feels like they need more time to transition.” Residents can request home delivered filters through a CORE hotline at 810-238-6700.

The decision to end bottled water service comes two days after the Snyder administration announced it was releasing Flint from receivership, ending a long chapter of state oversight that began in 2011 because of the city’s financial problems and coincided with the water contamination crisis.

Operating under state-appointed emergency managers at the time, Flint began drawing drinking water from the Flint River on April 25, 2014, while awaiting construction of a new regional Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron.

Residents quickly complained about the smell, color and taste of the water. It was not properly treated with corrosion control chemicals and eventually damaged aging pipes, leaching lead into the municipal supply.

“We won’t feel safe drinking our water until every bad pipe is replaced, and the administration that caused this disaster needs to make sure bottled water stays available until that happens,” Ananich said.

Flint has been getting its treated water from the Great Lakes Water Authority since October 2015. The city signed a 30-year agreement to stay on the Detroit area system in November 2017 after a federal judge forced City Council to quit delaying a decision about its permanent water source.