In his state of the state address last night, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder apologized to residents of the city of Flint for a drinking water supply that has been so polluted with lead that some scientists have called it "toxic waste."
“No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe," he said. "Government failed you—federal, state, and local leaders—by breaking the trust you place in us.”
His speech came as emergencies have been declared over the water quality at the local, state, and federal level. National Guard troops are handing out bottled water, President Obama met with the city's mayor, and a series of investigations have been launched.
But for many locals, Snyder's apology seemed like too little too late. People in Flint, who have complained about water problems for almost two years, are wondering if the response would have taken so long in another city that wasn't majority black and 40% poor.
As if to add insult to injury, many Flint residents are still paying hundreds of dollars a month in water bills for water that is literally poisonous. Eric Rothstein, a public accountant and member of the governor’s task force on the water crisis, said water prices in Flint were among the highest in the country.
The man-made disaster began in April 2014, when the city’s emergency manager—appointed by Snyder—decided to shift the source of drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River. It was a cost-saving measure for a near-bankrupt city. Even though locals thought of the river as a dumping ground, officials promised the water was safe to drink.
Almost immediately, residents began to report health problems. Wantwaz Davis, a City Council member, said his wife had rashes and burns on her skin after drinking the new water. He and other activists started holding protests, but he said state and federal officials seemed to turn a deaf ear on their complaints.
“Nobody never paid attention, they blew it off,” Davis told me.
Some days, the water flowing out of his taps would be blue, other days brown. Some days it would smell like sewage, other days like an over-chlorinated swimming pool.
In early 2015, some residents started reporting concerns about lead. A group of scientists from Virginia Tech conducted a series of lead samples at 300 Flint houses.
The results they found were shocking. Just five parts per billion (ppb) of lead in water is concerning, but in one woman’s house, the drinking water had 13,200 ppb lead. “It was astronomical,” Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who led the study, told me.
As it turned out, the water from the river was highly corrosive, and had eaten into the city's 90-year-old lead pipe system, lead leaching into the water. Even small levels of lead intake can have damaging, with irreversible impacts on the mental and physical health of children.
Behind the scenes, officials at the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Quality knew that the water was dangerous in early 2015, leaked emails show. But they waited to take action until October, after researchers came forward with data showing elevated blood levels of lead in some of the city's children.
"These guys were sitting around talking about this like it was the weather and doing nothing to protect the kids," Edwards said. (The head of the DEQ resigned last month; yesterday the EPA said it was investigating its own actions in the crisis.)
The city switched back to the Lake Huron water in mid-October, but by then, the pipes were already corroded enough that lead continued to enter the water.
The worst thing, perhaps, is that the whole problem could have been averted if the city had just spent $100 a day to add anti-corrosivity chemicals to the water when they switched to the Flint River water in 2014, Edwards said. Officials at the DEQ apparently said that wasn't necessary. Now, the city will likely end up paying about $1.5 billion to replace the entire pipe system.
The city has been adding the anti-corrosivity treatment since December, and the water is now safe to bathe in but not to drink, experts say. In recent weeks, National Guard troops have been handing out thousands of bottles of water to residents, as well as filters and testing kits.
Some locals have called for Snyder, the governor, to resign or even be arrested over the delay in action. Several residents have started class-action lawsuits against the state and the city. Today, Snyder will release his own emails about Flint in an attempt to head off criticism of a cover-up.
Meanwhile, there’s been a spike in Legionnaires' disease, a water-borne illness. Although it hasn't been conclusively attributed to the Flint river water, 10 people died from the disease in the last 18 months, officials said. Davis hopes the officials who made the water decisions will have to take some responsibility. “They chose money over livelihood,” he said as he drove around his ward delivering bottles of water to elderly and disabled people. “It’s poison. I believe it’s a genocide.”
Even as Snyder vowed to take responsibility for the crisis, there are still unanswered questions about how it happened: Specifically, who knew when? And why didn't they act?
“If the governor would have done a two-second Google search, he’d see how serious lead can be,” said Werner Troesken, a University of Pittsburgh professor who’s written a book about lead poisoning in water pipes.
The Flint crisis, he said, should be a warning for other American cities looking to fix their aging water systems. “The pipes are underground and unseen, so people don’t necessarily understand the importance of investing in this public infrastructure until it’s too late,” he said.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.