Flint Water Crisis: Donations are Rolling In, But Will They Be Enough?

TriplePundit is tracking the ongoing drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Follow our coverage here

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After months of hearing their pleas for help fall on deaf ears in the state government, Flint, Michigan, is finally receiving help from people all around the country.

For those who aren’t familiar with what’s going on in Flint, here’s the backstory: In April 2014, an emergency manager appointed by the governor switched the city’s tap water source from Lake Huron to the more corrosive Flint River. After more than a year of complaints and increasing lead levels, the state finally declared the water unsafe in October 2015 and switched back to Lake Huron water — but the damage to the city’s pipes is still contaminating the water supply.

The biggest item being donated, obviously, is bottled water. Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Pepsi and AQUAhydrate (a company owned by Mark Wahlberg and Sean Combs) have all lined up to send water to Flint. Wahlberg and Combs initially pledged to send 5,000 cases, and say they will continue to send water until the city’s water issues are resolved. Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Pepsi will send 176 truckloads of water, including enough for the city’s 10,000 schoolchildren to drink during school hours until the end of 2016.

To date, Coca-Cola has donated around 78,720 bottles of Dasani to local food banks and foundations. Nestlé Waters North America has donated five truckloads since October 2015. Walmart has contributed 14 trucks of water and 1,792 water filters since July 2015, three months before the state admitted there was a problem.

Many other companies, cities and individuals have also stepped up to send water, including Cher and Icelandic Water (181,000 bottles of water), and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has pledged to donate 100 cases of water for every $20 donated on crowdfunding site CrowdRise.

Detroit Pistons owner and CEO of Platinum Equity, Tom Gores (a Flint native), pledged to begin a campaign to raise at least $10 million for Flint residents. The campaign will also supply resources to help with a range of short- and long-term initiatives, including immediate support and funding to help the children affected.

Jimmy Fallon threw down a challenge in a tweet, pledging $10,000 to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and calling on other celebs to do the same.

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Madonna, Jon Cryer, Rosie O’Donnell and Saturday Night Live alum Seth Meyers all matched his gift.

Detroit native and R&B singer Kem donated $10,000 to the Salvation Army in Genesee County, Alt-rock group Pearl Jam pledged $100,000, and Aretha Franklin pledged rooms and food for 25 to 50 Flint residents (after a screening process) at her father’s church in Pontiac.

Nonprofits, schools and communities around the state and nation have also worked hard to gather supplies to send.

However, the water burden might increase, if that’s possible. Since October 2015, officials have advised Flint residents to use bottled water or filter their tap water. However, recent tests show that the lead levels in the water in 26 testing sites (out of 4,000) in the city might be too high for the water filters to be effective, and on Jan. 30, officials again urged all residents to get their water tested to see how many other sites might still show high levels.

The water tests came back with levels between 153 ppb (parts per billion) and over 4,000 ppb. The filters are rated up to 150 ppb. The filters are still effective for the majority of water which tested below 150 ppb (below 15 ppb is acceptable by EPA standards but no amount of lead is considered safe), but officials are urging everyone to get their water tested and say that pregnant women and children under 6 should only drink bottled water. There are water-testing kits at city hall and every fire station, and residents can even bring in water and have it tested for them.

All the water bottle donations to the city bring with them another issue — recycling to avoid excessive plastic waste. The Flint recycling program is only three years old, and until now, only about 15 percent of the 40,000 residents participated, but Gary Hicks of Republic Services (the company contracted with the city) says that 75 to 100 people a day are calling about the service and hundreds have signed up.

Young’s Environmental waste management is also offering to help with the problem free-of-charge. The business has a roll-out box in front of its corporate headquarters where residents can drop off their empty water bottles to be recycled.

Instead of so many little bottles, it would be nice if larger, reusable containers could be delivered (perhaps some already are), or if a company like Klean Kanteen donated reusable bottles and containers the residents could use over and over again.

But will these donations, generous as they are, be enough? With lead levels still high, even reconnected to the Detroit (Lake Huron) water system, the Flint tap water has ongoing problems and Gov. Rick Snyder has no plans to replace the pipes. Instead he plans to rely on using phosphates in the water to coat the corroded pipes and keep the lead from leaching out — the exact process that was not used in the first place. And that doesn’t seem to be working. Experts have said that replacing the pipes is “the only permanent solution to the lead problem,” but Snyder said it wasn’t on “his short-term agenda.”

“It’s a lot of work to take out pipes, to redo all of the infrastructure, that’s a whole planning process,” Snyder said at a press conference.

So, when will the water be safe to drink again? Without an idea of how to fix these most recent high lead level problems, resolving the issue seems far away. Will these and other donations be enough to help the residents of Flint for what looks like a long road to clean tap water? What happens as the months and possibly years go on and this crisis fades from the spotlight? What will the residents do when they are forgotten again and the problem still isn’t fixed?

Here are some links where individuals can help Flint residents:

Image credit: Flickr/deepay

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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