The United States’ simmering water crisis boiled over in Flint, Michigan, in 2014. Eight years later, roughly 2,000 homes in the majority-Black city still don’t have clean drinking water.
A recent internal audit by the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s watchdog found that the government agency, which is tasked with containing toxic contamination and pollution, hasn’t fully addressed Flint’s lead crisis or done enough to prevent future disasters.
“Without complete oversight of the drinking water program, the public’s health is still at risk from lead in drinking water,” the EPA’s Office of Inspector General wrote in the audit report released this month.
While the agency improved its oversight of lead testing in states that regularly monitor their water systems, it didn’t create a uniform system to ensure all states are properly monitoring for lead contamination, the inspector general audit determined. The report also found that the department has not addressed issues in its system that allows residents to report water quality violations.
The report comes nearly six years after President Barack Obama’s landmark 2016 visit to the city. “This is not a stunt,” Obama said as he sipped a glass of allegedly filtered tap water in Flint. “Flint water at this point is drinkable.”
At the time of Obama’s visit, the city was two years into a crisis that has led to more than 100 deaths from lead poisoning, researchers have concluded.
In response to the watchdog report, the EPA told Capital B News that it “appreciates the work” of the inspector general’s office and is “committed to using every tool available to protect all Americans from lead in drinking water.”
To address the issues outlined in the audit, the inspector general recommended enhancements to the department’s “Report a Violation” system to assess and track citizen tips. It also recommended a new documenting system for states’ Safe Drinking Water Act trainings. The agency is actively considering the report’s recommendations, an EPA spokesperson said.
Since the Flint water crisis was discovered, Michigan officials and the federal government have spent nearly $500 million to replace lead pipes, but the process has failed to reach many homes in the city of 95,000. Melissa Mays, a Flint community organizer and mother of three, has been a part of a team that has spent a little over a year knocking on more than 2,000 homes throughout the city to warn residents that their lead service lines have not been replaced.
The community, she says, has had to fill the gaps left by the government. “It feels like they’re tired of talking about it and funding it,” she said of state and federal leaders. “So they’ve told the world that the Flint water crisis is over, but living in it is a totally different situation.”
Mays says she has had to “gut her kitchen and bathroom down to the studs” in recent years because lead-contaminated water has corroded her pipes. In one instance, she said, corroded water lines led to her neighbor’s bathroom “falling through the second floor.” A $600 million settlement will be split among the city’s residents in the coming years.
“Obviously, we’re not going to be in a hurry to drink that water when it is eating through plumbing materials, no matter how safe they say it is,” said Mays, a community organizer with water rights group Flint Rising.
Flint’s water woes have brought much-needed attention to the country’s water troubles. Across the country, there are 10 million lead water lines, with a majority concentrated in the Rust Belt and the Midwest. In the South’s Black Belt region, outdated water infrastructure has led to a public health crisis and the risk of reintroducing waterborne diseases eradicated in the country.
Last November, the federal government earmarked $55 billion to replace lead service lines and upgrade the country’s household drinking water systems. Still, even favorable estimations say it will take at least a decade to complete the program. The biggest obstacle, experts say, is determining which communities need the funding because there is no maintained map of lead water lines in the U.S.
Due to discriminatory housing policies, lead water lines are known to be concentrated in Black and Latino communities. A 2020 study found that race, namely being Black in America, was a bigger risk factor for lead poisoning than poverty or poor housing. Black children, the study concluded, were four times more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood than children of other races. The EPA’s new chief administrator, the first Black man to hold the title, has acknowledged this disparity.
Flint’s water struggles have opened up several emotional and psychological problems in children. Results from a recent group sample of 174 Flint children revealed that 80% required help for a language-learning or intellectual disorder, compared with 15% before Flint’s water became contaminated.
“Beyond the health implications of the lead in the water, the society in Flint was shaken, and that sense of peril may have created the conditions for learning challenges,” said Brian Jacob, a professor at the University of Michigan, whose May 2022 study concluded that Flint’s school district is disproportionately filled with students with special needs.
While fighting to ensure clean water in Flint, Mays and other activists have also advocated for public and mental health interventions, including securing lead testing for at-risk children and families. Currently, in Michigan, there are only lead testing waivers for families in public health programs like Medicaid.
“We don’t want to see other families suffering like us, other innocent people,” said Mays, who has developed a seizure disorder that she said doctors believe to be related to water contamination. “It’s like the government has used Flint as a playbook of how not to fix a city.”