The Flint River scribbles 142 miles through mid-Michigan, and a noticeable change occurs as it flows southwest into the city of Flint. Concrete slopes capped with wire fences flank the water. Occasional graffiti or a weedy bush break the monotony of such barren shores. So do decaying bridge piers protruding from the center of the river like the sails of submarines much too large for the modest waterway.
Another stark transformation happens in the few seconds required to paddle beneath the Sunset Drive bridge. Gray stone ceases and a leafy, tree-shrouded corridor unfolds.
At that time, the city's water service changed from nearby Detroit's system to the local Flint River, in an effort to save money. But Flint failed to properly treat the water and dangerous levels of lead leached from old pipes, setting up a public health crisis that has endangered thousands of children and affected every resident, many of whom had to drink bottled water for long periods of time. Some still do. The political fallout was intense, with numerous city and state officials resigning. A city-declared state of emergency remains in effect as remediation continues, and skepticism persists when it comes to the drinking water quality. Many questions also linger about blame and the way the crisis unfolded, as well as about the community's connection to the river. (See portraits of the people living on bottled water.)
Quantity, not quality
“We just covered it in my class this week,” says Noah Hall, a professor of law at Wayne State University in Detroit. He previously served as Michigan’s volunteer special assistant attorney general to investigate the drinking water crisis.
“The discussion of Flint with the students was just sort of Family Feud style. How many people heard the Flint River was to blame for the water crisis?”
Most of the people raised a hand to agree.
“The notion that we have a dirty and dangerous river is one that we’ve been addressing before the drinking water crisis,” says Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition. “I think that’s why it was so easy to point the finger at the river.”
Large-scale production of lumber, chemicals, and automobiles tainted the waterway during the 19th and 20th centuries. General Motors was founded in Flint in 1908, and the company maintained eight plants by the time a 1966 U.S. Department of Interior report evaluated the watershed.
From spark plugs to engines to assembly, the GM locations dumped 10 million gallons of waste into the river every day, according to the Interior report. This included minimally treated oil and dangerous substances like cyanide and hexavalent chromium.
Flint tapped into Detroit’s municipal water system the following year to receive water sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. The decision relied on foresight rather than reaction. Planners considered the quantity of the Flint River as a limiting factor, not quality, with a bustling car industry and projected fivefold growth from the 1960 census population of almost 200,000 people.
Then came the federal environmental legislation of the early 1970s.
“The Clean Water Act was the tool that really did so much across our entire country to help address industrial pollution in our waterways,” Fedewa says. “The case was no different here on the Flint River.”
However, even the 1966 report had identified a primary element that contributed to the modern drinking water crisis. (Learn more about drinking water safety in the U.S.)
Chloride, chloride, chloride
The river provides an ever-changing border to the University of Michigan-Flint campus. Surface ripples shatter sunlight into glitter on a clear day and soothe with the sounds of their movement.
“The Flint River was never the problem,” says Monique Wilhelm, the laboratory manager for the university’s department of chemistry and biochemistry.
Like many residents, Wilhelm noticed the difference streaming from her faucets in the labs after the city siphoned from the Flint River instead of Detroit—a move that was supposed to save the city money. But complaints to city hall about metallic flavors and offensive odors started almost immediately after that change in April 2014, and within weeks, some people were buying bottled water.
Color offered obvious clues that prompted residents to protest at city council meetings. Urine yellow. Cloudy orange. Coffee brown.
Measurements from the 1966 study had shown elevated chloride concentrations in the Flint River, still true in 2014.
“One of the big suspects is all the road salts,” says Terese Olson, an associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The amount of deicing salt sold in the U.S. in 1940 compared to 2010 has increased by a factor of 60. Heavy rains and snow melts wash those salts into local watersheds.
Flint’s treatment process to purify the river water into drinking water then further aggravated the chemistry, Olson says.
Bacteria was detected in the system by August 2014, so city workers boosted the amounts of chlorine disinfectant twice. Plus, similar to most surface waters, the Flint River contains tiny organic bits. Employees at the treatment plant used ferric chloride as a coagulant to capture these dissolved particles.
“They're thinking about each problem separately,” Wilhelm says, “instead of thinking of the water as a system.”
Corrosion spread unchecked through 580 miles of main pipe distribution, 7,000 main valves, and 28,000 service lines that connect primary conduits to individual buildings.
Tap water turned the colors of corroded pipes as the metals reacted with water coursing with chlorine compounds. Although scientifically accurate, a typical refrain in news pieces—the corrosive river—misleads in terms of human contact. Kayaks and swimmers don’t disintegrate.
But the pipes did.
Lead-bearing particles detached from the pipe walls, and 100,000 residents interacted daily with the destructive neurotoxin.
They washed their peppers and carrots with poisoned water in the autumn of 2014. People brushed their teeth and served their pets all winter, and city officials ignored concerned citizens even after the local GM engine plant stopped using the water in December due to corrosion on its machines.
So children drank lead at school fountains by spring 2015, and babies drank lead in formula during the summer and autumn.
Trust in the invisible is a definition of faith. Unlike when the concrete river channel surrenders to native tree trunks, people couldn’t see the leaching lead. A straightforward modification might have prevented them from needing to.
“We have no explanation”
Flint passed an ordinance in 1897 that required service lines be made of lead, the prime choice for the era. Plenty of construction happened in the interim centuries, but the information for which type of line connected to which homes existed on 100,000 paper index cards discovered in the water department’s basement. Digitization started in late 2015, and the University of Michigan helped design an algorithm to predict clusters with the highest likelihood of dangerous plumbing.
Flint switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015, but public health effects from lead exposure prompted emergency declarations from the state and federal governments in early 2016. The city then launched an aggressive rehabilitation campaign, and in the past three years, crews have explored 21,298 homes and replaced lead service lines at 8,260. The work should finish in July, according to Jameca Patrick-Singleton, the chief recovery officer in her hometown.
“Born and raised,” she says. “I remember as a kid, sitting on the bank and having picnics. Flint River is one of the things that makes Flint beautiful. We love our river. We just don’t want to drink from it untreated.”
Many cities use orthophosphate, which interacts with lead and iron pipes to create a physical boundary that prevents drinking water from touching the actual metals.
Flint water treatment plant operators never added the crucial ingredient.
“That decision was not a mistake,” says Hall, the former legal counsel for the state’s investigation. “Not because we forgot to. Not bureaucratic overlap between EPA and DEQ. They simply didn’t do it because the state told them don’t do it.”
Archived emails and subsequent testimonies show the directive from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, but the documents don’t illuminate why.
“Five years later,” Hall says, “we have no explanation for the most simple, direct causal fact that led to the Flint water crisis.”
State and federal funds for repairs and social services combined with grants and charitable contributions—bottled water prominent among them—have already totaled more than a half billion dollars. Anti-corrosion chemicals would have cost about $150 a day.
The most recent testing of Flint’s drinking water, sourced again from Detroit, marked lead at four parts per billion, well clear of the 15 that requires action. Those results account for a 90th-percentile rating. In other words, 90 percent of the homes comply with the federal standard.
“And that’s when the system works,” Hall says. “It’s a system that defines success as some people having it and some people not. Flint should just make it brutally apparent to everybody.”
Michigan represents the country’s closest approximation of an inland island, with coastlines that touch four of the five Great Lakes. A report from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission concluded that the state should “aspire to have the safest drinking water in the nation” instead of aligning its decisions “on a legally possible interpretation” of the rules.
Meanwhile, the state fired Hall in early 2019 from his unpaid position as independent counsel on the grounds that the attorney general’s office can represent Michigan on both sides of the water crisis investigation. Plaintiffs in some of the many lawsuits still in progress have challenged the move in court.
As for the river, Fedewa and the watershed group point to positive data demonstrating a healthy ecosystem. Indicators include the team’s biodiversity surveys of dragonfly larvae and other benthic macroinvertebrates sensitive to water quality.
A new public kayak and canoe access will also open this summer, around the time crews will excavate the last residential lead service lines. Even with overhaul, lead can still infiltrate homes with old brass fixtures or lead solder on pipes. Tests will continue, and according to Patrick-Singleton, the mayor won’t lift the city’s emergency declaration until the scientific and medical communities clear the drinking water.
Fedewa says she and her team focus on educational outreach and experiential opportunities that reconnect residents with their river, an always-flowing reminder that there is no safe level of lead and there is no substitute for water.
Dustin Renwick’s reporting was supported in part by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. He is a triathlete and a freelance journalist.