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A year after Flint’s lead crisis emerged, Congress finally takes action

The money — which might not flow for months — still isn’t enough to replace lead pipes.

Flint residents and volunteers distributing water. CREDIT: Bryce Covert
Flint residents and volunteers distributing water. CREDIT: Bryce Covert

Congress nearly shut down the government over its inability to pass an aid package for the residents of Flint, Michigan, who started drinking water poisoned with lead and other toxins in April 2014 and have been relying on bottled water and filters ever since.

On Wednesday, days away from a government shutdown and almost exactly a year since the first public health emergency was declared in Flint, the House voted on an aid package for the first time. But the money probably won’t be enough to meet residents’ demands.

The House’s legislation would authorize $170 million for the city, which is still very much coping with the crisis. Meanwhile, the Senate approved $220 million — so aid won’t even begin to flow until the two bodies can work out an agreement, which will likely wait until after the November 8th election.

“While I’m pleased that there is some more additional resources from the federal government coming into Flint to deal with the crisis, it’s still a drop in the bucket for the things that we need,” said Nayyriah Shariff, Flint resident and director of Flint Rising.

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Shariff’s group has laid out three demands on behalf of residents: replace all the damaged water service lines, reimburse residents for the entirety of their water bills — highest in the nation — dating back to April 2014 when the city first began using tainted water, and provide the community with health and education services.

Of Congress’s aid package, she noted, “We don’t know if that’s even enough to replace the lead service lines.” Meanwhile, residents are still paying bills for water they can’t drink, while others have had to repeatedly replace expensive appliances, such as hot water heaters and washing machines, after they were damaged by the corrosive and toxic water flowing through the pipes.

The city has continued to struggle as Congress argued over whether and how to help Flint. Aid was held up by a number of Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Mike Lee (UT), who argued that the city and state had “all the government resources they need to fix the problem.”

“Conservatives across the board have dragged their feet to provide the funding necessary to fix this crisis even though it was caused by the foolish Republican mantra of trying to run government like a business,” said Lonnie Scott, executive of Progress Michigan, in an emailed statement.

“It’s truly unfortunate that the only time Republicans — whether they’re in D.C. or Lansing — act to provide the resources Flint families need, it requires massive public pressure and a heavy dose of shaming,” Scott added.

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Shariff shared the same sentiment. “I’m not really that happy with the time that it took for us to receive funding, and I don’t know what the final version’s going to be,” she said.

Flint’s water is still not safe to drink straight from the tap. Officials have told residents that the water can be drunk from filters, but filters still need to be replaced at least once a month and can’t be used for everything, such as bathing. “There’s a lot of points in these conditions [on filter use] that are fraught with human error,” Shariff pointed out. Her group tries to educate residents about proper use.

But many people still rely instead on bottled water. And that is both expensive and complicated. After the federal designation of a state of emergency lapsed in August, the government stopped picking up a large portion of the tab for buying bottled water and filters, and the city is quickly running out of its own funds.

Meanwhile, residents are still expending a lot of money on getting the water they need to drink, cook, and bathe. “We really need door-to-door water delivery, because many people are using their own resources to drive and get water,” Shariff noted. “Many elderly people cannot physically carry the water into their house.” A sizable share of the population doesn’t have reliable transportation, so must rely on family and friends to get water.

“People’s own individual investment…is a lot,” she said. “For something that they did not make the decision over.”

Flint Rising isn’t done pressuring politicians for help. “We’re looking for the federal government to step up, because the state is not interested,” Shariff said.