As Water Protectors in North Dakota look to the future with cautious optimism after news that a massive pipeline might be diverted from their sacred lands, the residents of Flint, MI, are still fighting for their right to drink clean water.
The events that led to horrific images of the dirty, toxic water in Flint were years in the making. In 2014, the city of Flint–which had previously gotten its water from Detroit–switched to drawing water from the Flint River, intended as a cost saving measure to help the cash-strapped city.
Not long after, residents of the majority black city began complaining about the color, smell, and taste of the water, with some reporting rashes and hair loss. As early as August 2014, officials encouraged residents in certain areas to boil their water before drinking it as a precaution.
Even as the water quality began to take a physical, mental, and financial toll on the city’s residents, it wasn’t until after September 2015, when Hurley Medical Center Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and a group of doctors found high levels of lead in children’s blood and Virginia Tech researchers said people should not be using Flint water unless filtered or boiled first that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder began to take formal action.
Since then, the water crisis has forced the world to confront the reality of environmental racism in Flint–and elsewhere, too. Residents have had to beg for clean water as the horror stories got worse and worse. Inside their homes, residents found ways to get by and community members used healthy, local food to fight the side effects of lead contamination.
Here is a month by month rundown of what happen in Flint in 2016.
Just five days into the new year, Gov. Snyder declared a state of emergency over lead levels in the water. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan, under the Justice Department, confirmed they were investigating.
On January 12, Snyder activated the National Guard to help residents of Flint.
In Michigan, immigrants without legal status cannot get driver’s licenses, meaning some undocumented residents seeking relief were turned away by National Guard officers asking to see identification.
Along with the risk of long-term effects of lead poisoning, 10 people died from Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia caused by breathing in bacteria in contaminated water. On January 13, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services officials said there was not enough evidence to link the more than 80 reported cases of Legionnaires’ to the dirty, lead-contaminated water. (The link would later be proven by Virginia Tech scientists).
By January 16, President Obama declared the situation a federal emergency, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to step in. Although Snyder had asked for a disaster declaration, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said because the situation in Flint was a “manmade crisis,” it could not officially classified as a natural disaster, a designation that would have meant $96 million in aid.
Meanwhile, media reports and official investigations revealed officials supplied state employees in Flint with bottled water to drink while downplaying concerns to the public. Snyder faced calls to resign. Although he apologized and vowed to fix the Flint water crisis, locals said the damage had already been done.
“People in Flint, who have complained about water problems for almost two years, are wondering if the response would have taken so long in another city that wasn’t majority black and 40% poor,” wrote Fusion’s Casey Tolan.
The FBI announced it was investigating the Flint water crisis. An advocacy group released documents after they discovered a high-level Snyder advisor was made aware about the potential link between Flint’s contaminated water and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. For months, the office failed to check if the Legionnaires’ outbreak was indeed linked to the dirty water.
Inmates at a correctional facility an hour-and-a-half outside the city pledged to donate one-third of their monthly incomes to buying bottled water and filters for Flint, even as Congress was gridlocked over a $600 million emergency aid package for the city.
Investigators said Flint city employees could face involuntary manslaughter charges for lying to the public about the contamination.
At a March 17 congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis a Pennsylvania congressman went after Snyder.
“Gov. Snyder, plausible deniability only works when it’s deniable, and I’m not buying that you didn’t know about any of this until October 2015,” Rep. Matt Cartwright said. “You were not in a medically-induced coma for a year and I’ve had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies.”
Although he still refused to resign, Snyder promised to drink filtered Flint tap water for 30 days to prove that it is safe.
On April 20, prosecutors announced charges against two state officials and one city official for crimes including evidence tampering, negligence, and a violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. Snyder was not among them.
The national discussion about Flint brought environmental racism and justice further into the spotlight.
President Obama visited Flint, where he met eight-year-old “Little Miss Flint” Mari Copeny, who had written him a letter about the water crisis in her community.
“I see you and I hear you and I want to hear directly from you about how this public health crisis has disrupted your lives, how it’s made you angry, how it’s made you worried,” Obama said.
Despite the hearings, investigations, and declarations of emergency, state officials said Flint residents would still have to foot the bill for the massive renovation project needed to restore the city’s safe water, with residents’ water bills projected to double for the next five years.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced a lawsuit against two companies that allegedly overlooked obvious problems which led to the contaminated water.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control, released online on June 24, found the water crisis was “entirely preventable.”
By the end of the month, the Environmental Protection Agency said that after testing water at 50 sites, filtered Flint water was officially safe to drink.
On July 29, Schuette announced criminal charges against six current and former Michigan state employees in connection with the water crisis, raising the total number of officials facing charges to nine.
The federal state of emergency in Flint ended on August 14, under which the government was covering 75% of the costs for bottled water and filters. The state government announced it would pick up the bill for the products still used by residents, an estimated $3.5 million a month.
Then-Republican nominee Donald Trump visited Flint and met Little Miss Flint. It didn’t go so well.
While in Flint, Trump spoke briefly about the water crisis before launching into one of his favorite campaign trail topics: Mexico.
“It used to be that cars were made in Flint and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico, and now the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint,” Trump said. “They’ll make their cars, they’ll employ thousands and thousands of people, not from this country…and we’ll have nothing but more unemployment in Flint.”
But when he began to talk about Hillary Clinton, a black pastor shut him down.
“Mr. Trump, I invited you here to thank us for what we’ve done in Flint, not give a political speech,” Pastor Green Faith Timmons said. Later, in typical Trump style, he suggested Timmons staged the confrontation for attention.
At a conference of city leaders, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver urged fellow lawmakers to learn from Flint.
“There are other Flints waiting to happen if something’s not done, and that’s why somebody has to be a voice,” Weaver told Fusion’s Daniel Rivero. “If I see something that’s happening in my city that has the potential of happening in yours, I feel like it’s my responsibility to warn you.”
Although the water had been deemed safe to drink, many families still had an understandable aversion to washing their hands with tap water. NBC News reported this could have led to a new outbreak of bacterial illnesses.
One week before the election, Trump blamed the Flint water crisis on “incompetent politicians.”
State lawmakers pushed a bill seeking $170 million in infrastructure and aid spending for the people of Flint.
State and federal leaders promised to hold the president-elect accountable on his plan to improve infrastructure and give the residents of Flint the resources they need. On November 16, Flint mayor Weaver extended the city’s state of emergency, set to last “until further notice.”
A federal judge ordered the state to continue to deliver water to Flint residents without working water filters. The state argued the order was unnecessary and would cost $10 million a month.
On Thanksgiving, Flint residents were forced to use an insane amount of bottled water to prepare their holiday meals.
Many have pointed out that the mainstream media has largely moved on from the crisis in Flint, even as local leaders say there’s still work to do. Little Miss Flint needs 23 gallons of bottled water just to take a bath.
Online petitioners are calling for a boycott of Nestle products after the company struck a deal to buy cheap water from the state.
“Nestlé’s large-scale withdrawal of low-cost Great Lakes water while Flint residents have not had clean tap water to drink has not sat well with many in Michigan,” the Detroit Free Press reported.
Trump has yet to provide any plan or timetable to make good on promises to help the residents of Flint.