It's been seven years since Flint, Michigan made headlines across the world.
A severe water contamination crisis left many residents using bottled water for months. Nationwide demonstrations called for the people involved to be held accountable. Numerous reports outlined the adverse health effects children and adults faced after consuming the water, which contained high amounts of lead at the time.
But as the outrage died down over the years and less attention shifted away from the majority-Black city, many people were left wondering what happened to Flint, how they're doing in 2021, and how it got so bad in the first place.
What caused the crisis?
Most people understand that there were high concentrations of lead poisoning the waters of Flint, forcing residents to avoid drinking tap water and other sources. But how did the contamination happen?
According to the Associated Press (AP), which collected key moments in the crisis, the issue began with city officials wanted to save money in the wake of the Great Recession. In April 2014, the city began drawing water from the Flint River, a temporary move while the city waited for a new regional water system.
The folly started when the river water wasn't properly filtered, leaving large quantities of lead in the water for Flint's 100,000 residents.
"When scientists analyzed that water, they discovered to their horror that the city’s treatment of it was woefully inadequate to reduce its levels of harmful bacteria and acid—and that the latter had begun to corrode Flint’s antiquated pipes from the inside, delivering tiny bits of lead through people’s faucets," according to Politico.
People immediately complained about the taste, smell, and appearance of the water. Some even claimed they were suffering hair loss, rashes, and other health problems.
A 2019 study found that exposure to lead in adults can increase the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and reduced fertility. Children only needed a low level of exposure to experience adverse health effects. Since lead is an irreversible neurotoxin, it's difficult to treat once someone is exposed to it, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha told NPR in 2017. The crisis also led to an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, leaving at least 12 people dead, Politico said.
AP also noted that Detroit actually offered to reconnect Flint to its water system in January 2015, but city leaders declined. By September 2015, doctors even started urging residents not to use the water after finding high levels in children's blood. State regulators still insisted the water was safe.
Then-Gov. Rick Snyder didn't recognize the contaminated water as a problem in Flint until September 29, 2015 -- the first acknowledgment by the state.
Since then, protests have erupted across the U.S. calling for city officials to be held accountable for suppressing the severity of this crisis. Meanwhile, water filters were being supplied to households, and bottled water was given away just about every day. Organizations helping the city received donations and eventually, federal assistance came to the city to directly address the crisis.
On February 17, 2017, "The Michigan Civil Rights Commission issues a report that finds 'systemic racism' is at the core of problems that caused the water crisis," AP reported.
Where is Flint now seven years later?
Despite the abhorrent conditions and questionable decisions by both local and state leaders, Flint has made a remarkable recovery over the last few years. Politico provided an in-depth look into how the city has rebounded since 2014.
Residents finally have clean water running through new copper pipes. The city also secured a reliable water source and distributed water filters to every home that needed them. Not only that, but most residences show that lead levels were "far below even the strictest regulations in the country."
Just under 95,000 Flint residents were compensated for the economic, emotional, and physical damages they suffered during the whole ordeal, including a $650 million settlement from the city and state last year.
With all this progress, there's still something lingering in the hearts and minds of most Flint residents. Doubt and frustration.
Multiple factors over the years have fueled the residents' mistrust: the mismanagement of pipe replacement, the multiple controversies of past mayors; a lack of comprehensive records detailing which pipes were outdated and/or dangerous; a slew of charges dropped against former and current local officials for their role in the crisis; and an orchestrated state-led takeover of the crisis.
Way before the contaminated water, other issues lingered in the minds of Flint residents, such as how city officials handled the Great Recession that kickstarted the whole mess, Politico said. To this day, people line up to get bottled water donations despite the improved conditions and clean water in the city.
“I can’t tell somebody they should trust [claims that the water is safe], because I don’t trust them—and I have more information than most people,” said Jim Ananich, a lifelong Flint resident and Michigan politician. “Science and logic would tell me that it should be OK, but people have lied to me.”
It may take more than clean water to undo years of distrust, deception, and lies elected officials have fed the people living in Flint. The biggest blow came when people learned that the state officials directly involved in causing the crisis had their charges dropped. The statute of limitations on these charges has also expired.
“I don't think there’s a chance in hell that all of those 15 people [charged in Flood’s investigation] are going to get charged again,” Benjamin Pauli said, a professor of social sciences at Flint’s Kettering University. “It’s hard to maintain people's trust in institutions when you don't see justice being done with your own eyes... I shudder to think what's going to happen if these cases just evaporate into thin air, because it’s going to be yet another trauma inflicted upon the community, whether people intend it that way or not.”
Residents still report medical issues from drinking water, and some don't want their pipes changed due to the disruption to daily life, according to Chandra Walker-Smith. She does outreach for the National Resources Defense Council, talking to residents who haven't replaced their pipes yet.
“We still don’t consume [the water],” said Walker-Smith, whose tap water tested negative for lead last December. “They tell us that the water’s OK now, but I have excessive itching on my back right now. There’s been hair loss; I could go on and on about the things I’ve heard.”
Despite the pessimism and pervasive doubt, current residents still remain hopeful for the future. Some choose to stay in their homes, despite questions about why they don't leave if things are so bad.
“People think we’re just poor and have no means to leave. Some of us just don’t want to leave," Walter-Smith said. "People think we’re just poor and have no means to leave. Some of us just don’t want to leave. Both sides of my family are here. I own my home; it’s paid for; I don’t have a mortgage. I don’t want to leave my home,” she said. “You just have to adjust.”