By Sierra Searcy
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has created an office for clean water, housed within the newly formed Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, to investigate complaints about water quality. “Right now, communities across our state don’t trust the water coming out of their taps, and there is a real lack of trust in state government,” Whitmer said. Her executive order comes at a time when many Michiganders lack access to clean water — and the resources to fix the problem.
Just ask students in Detroit. For the last six months, the nearly 50,000 students enrolled in Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have not been able to use the drinking fountains.
In August, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti tested the water quality at 86 DPS schools. There is no law requiring schools to test their water, but Vitti had good cause for concern. At 57 of the schools tested, results showed elevated levels of lead and copper. Vitti ordered all drinking water to be shut off at every school in the district.
Lead is rarely found naturally in lakes, rivers, or wells. It tends to enter drinking water through the corrosion of aging pipes, solder, and faucets. Copper may enter into drinking water either by directly contaminating well water or through the corrosion of copper pipes. The presence of both lead and copper in drinking water at DPS schools is the result of corrosion.
“It’s all about the infrastructure. In DPS schools, they didn’t take care of the infrastructure. They didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” said a Detroit Water and Sewer company employee who wished to remain anonymous. “They have not put money into keeping up the pipes.”
The tests results have left students worried. “When they told us the water was being shut off because it had lead and copper in it, they didn’t give us any information on how the contaminated water affects us, so I looked it up on my own,” said Southeastern High School freshman Isiah Pearl. “I found out drinking water with lead and copper in it makes you dumber.”
In children, exposure to even low levels of lead has been linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ, hyperactivity, stunted growth, impaired hearing, and anemia. For this reason, the federal government banned lead-based paint in 1978 and began to phase out the use of lead gasoline in 1974. Although water with lead is considered safe for washing hands, some students remain concerned. “They say we can wash our hands, but if we can’t drink it, I don’t understand how it doesn’t affect our outside body,” said Joi Morgan, a senior at Southeastern High School.
To address the fountain shutoff, schools have provided portable water coolers, one for every 100 students. Southeastern has only three water coolers across three floors to serve its 300 students and staff, many of whom don’t have time to reach a water cooler between classes.
“Getting to class on time is already hard, so stopping to get water most of the time means going out of my way and being late,” said Southeastern freshman Christopher Robbins. “The building’s old. It’s always so hot, so we get thirsty easily. But they are so strict here. We can’t be late to class, or we will get in trouble.”
Pearl shared Robbins’ frustration. “In middle school, kids would get sick [with dehydration] because we didn’t have any water fountains,” he said. “The school was basically falling apart.”
A cafeteria staff member who wished to remain anonymous said that water contamination has also made it more difficult to make lunch. Instead of going to the faucet, the kitchen staff must use bottled water. “It has made my job harder, but we have to do what we have to do to feed these babies,” the staff member said of the students. “We don’t want them to get sick.”
The lack of water is another setback for a district that has been beset by financial problems for more than a decade. Already facing shortages of books, supplies, and teachers, many students in the largely black, working-class school district are disappointed about the water contamination, but not surprised. “We just saw it as another problem. I was just like, ‘Oh, now the water doesn’t work,’” said Southeastern senior Steffon Horton. “I haven’t thought too much about it.”
Lead contamination is no stranger to black communities. Studies show that black children are more likely to be exposed to lead than white children, a fact affirmed by the experience of teachers and students in Detroit. “I haven’t heard about schools in Farmington or Southfield [wealthier and whiter communities near Detroit] with this problem,” said Southeastern English and Language Arts teacher Jacqueline Robinson.
“I feel like we would have more resources if we were in a suburban community,” Morgan said. “They feel like they can give us this little water station and we will be okay because they think we don’t want to come to school anyway, but that’s not the case.”
Lacking funding to address the water crisis, Superintendent Vitti raised $2.4 million in donations from philanthropies to pay for filters that will remove lead and copper from water from drinking fountains. The district is in the processing of installing the filters at every DPS school, though the filters will need to be replaced regularly. The only permanent fix is to replace the aging pipes.
Water contamination in Detroit schools is indicative of larger infrastructure issues across the state. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Michigan’s schools a D+ on its most recent infrastructure report card, as many districts are “utilizing facilities built in the 1950s and 1960s following the Baby Boom, in the condition they were originally constructed.” Michigan’s drinking water infrastructure received a D in the same report, which noted the state would need to spend nearly $14 billion to bring its drinking water into compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In his state of the union address this week, President Donald Trump called for an infrastructure overhaul. Democrats in Congress are willing to work with Trump on an infrastructure package this year. As part of that effort, there are steps that federal lawmakers could take to improve drinking water as part of a larger push on infrastructure, such as establishing a federal Water Infrastructure Trust Fund to help finance local improvements and repairs in cities like Detroit.
For now, students and staff will continue pushing for a solution. “We won’t stop talking and using our voices until we are heard,” Robbins said. “We need a change. We demand a change, and I won’t give up until that change happens.”