TriplePundit is tracking the ongoing drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Follow our coverage here.
In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan, switched drinking water sources from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to save money while a new pipeline was being constructed.
The river’s water is highly corrosive, and it was not treated with an anti-corrosive agent. The result was the leakage of enough lead to qualify as toxic waste into the city’s drinking water — poisoning hundreds, including children.
How could this have happened? What has become of Michigan’s leadership that it could poison an entire city? We took a look back to see where it all went wrong.
A General Motors factory in Flint dumped industrial waste in the Flint River for decades before the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Clean-up attempts have been successful, but the water remains 19 times more corrosive than Lake Huron — Flint’s former drinking water source.
GM moves operations and eliminates jobs, resulting in a higher unemployment and crime rate in Flint.
Rick Snyder takes office as governor of Michigan.
Snyder expands Michigan’s emergency manager law (Public Act 4) to give EMs more power.
Nov. 29: Snyder appoints an emergency manager for Flint. The city will have four emergency managers before its EM rule ends in 2015 (Michael Brown, Edward Kurtz, Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose).
Snyder’s budget is passed, increasing taxes on individuals and lowering them on businesses.
A study finds that the Flint River needs an anti-corrosion agent to be drinkable at a cost of around $100 a day. This agent is not added when the city later switches to the Flint River in 2014. Experts say using this agent from the beginning would have prevented 90 percent of Flint’s water problems.
Voters repeal Public Act 4. Within weeks, Snyder and the Michigan legislature pass PA 72 in its place, attaching an appropriation to it and making it voter referendum-proof.
Flint water rates are among the highest in the state. Residents want relief.
March: The Flint City Council votes to stop using water from Lake Huron through the Detroit system, join the Karegnondi Water Authority, and get water from Lake Huron through that pipeline (but there is no mention of the Flint River). The state agreed with the water switch to save $19 million over eight years ($5 million in two years).
April 16: Emergency manager Ed Kurtz signs the agreement.
April 17: Detroit notifies Flint that although it will be three years before the new water source is available, Flint can pay a temporary higher rate, or it will stop selling water to Flint in a year (April 2014). There is some dispute as to whether or not this was made up by Snyder’s administration to excuse the switch.
March: Flint announces that it will use the Flint River for drinking water until the KWA pipeline is complete.
April 25: The city flips the switch to begin sending Flint River water through its pipes. No anti-corrosive agent was used. As officials celebrate, Mayor Dayne Walling hails it as a “historic moment.” He says “the water quality speaks for itself,” and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) says “residents won’t notice any difference.”
May: Residents begin complaining about the water. It looks funny, smells funny and tastes bad. MDEQ says its tests show it meets state standards.
June: Water rates continue to be astronomical: No financial relief for residents, and now the water is bad.
June: Flint mother LeeAnne Walters notices rashes on her children. They also start to lose their hair and get sick.
June 12: City officials say they are treating the water with lime due to complaints, but the mayor scoffs at residents’ concerns about safety. “I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water,” he tells the Flint Journal.
August/September: The city issues a boil advisory for part of the city after the water tests positive for E. coli bacteria (fecal coliform bacteria). Other advisories follow. The city decides to add high levels of chlorine to fix it.
Oct. 13: The Flint General Motors plant refuses to continue using the river water because its operators believe it is rusting car parts. The plant reconnects to the Detroit water system. Around the same time, a local hospital also raises concerns that the water is damaging their instruments and changes their water filters. The city continues to tell residents the water is safe.
November: Another Flint mother, Melissa Mays, who also complained about the drinking water from the start, becomes suspicious when her son falls off his bike and shatters his wrist. Brittle bones are a sign of lead poisoning. Her whole family would later test positive for heavy-metal poisoning.
December: LeeAnne Walters refuses to let her children drink the water.
Jan. 4: Officials now say that Flint’s water contains such a high level of trihalomethanes (TTHM) that it’s in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, they assure residents that people with normal immune systems have nothing to worry about.
Jan. 7: In government offices in Flint, the administration delivers bottled water for workers to drink because of the TTHM water tests. Officials continue to tell residents that the water is safe to drink.
Jan. 12: The Detroit Water and Sewage Department offers to reconnect Flint and waive the $4 million connection fee. Flint’s environmental manager, Darnell Earley, says no.
Jan. 13: Protesters rally outside City Hall to demand lower water bills and a return to Detroit’s supply. Hundreds turn out at a forum, some complaining of rashes on children. Detroit offers to let Flint switch back, but Earley says it would cost too much.
Jan. 20: Flint Mayor Dayne Walling asks Gov. Snyder for help with several water problems, including lower rates for new customers and more frequent reporting on water test results statewide. “Both the state and federal government need to be actively involved in improving Flint’s water system. The governor has a particular responsibility due to Public Act 436,” (the state’s emergency manager law).
The mayor sends his request to Snyder and asks his supporters to contact the governor as well if they want “to implement my plan and ensure Flint’s water is safe.”
Jan. 20: Environmental activist Erin Brockovich speaks up, severely criticizing local, state and federal officials for making “excuses” for the bad water.
Feb. 17: Water expert Bob Bowcock (sent by Erin Brockovich) tells the city to switch back to Detroit water.
Feb. 18: The city hires a consultant to investigate the water quality. They say it contains sediment and is discolored but is safe to drink.
Feb. 26: A manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tells Michigan officials that the chemistry of the river water means contaminants from pipes, including lead, are leaching into the water system.
March: City council votes to “do all things necessary” to reconnect with Detroit water. Emergency manager Jerry Ambrose calls the decision “incomprehensible” and overrules it.
April 2: The city tells residents that adding too many disinfectants have caused it to violate the Safe Drinking Water Act again. Mayor Walling tweets: “(My) family and I drink and use the Flint water everyday, at home, work, and schools.”
June 5: Activists file suit in attempt to stop the city from using river water. The city gets it moved to federal court, where a judge denies a preliminary injunction. The suit is eventually dismissed.
June 24: EPA water expert Miguel del Toral sends an internal memo to his bosses flagging Flint’s failure to use chemicals to control corrosion, which can cause lead to leach from pipes into drinking water. The warning was not made public until the ACLU leaked a copy of the memo weeks later. In July, regional EPA administrator Susan Hedman tells Flint’s mayor “it would be premature to draw any conclusions” based on the memo.
July: MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel dismisses the memo. He told Michigan Radio, “Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”
July 22: Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff says in an email to the state Health Department that he believes the Flint residents are “concerned and rightfully so” about lead in the water. “These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight),” he says. The agency says the data shows no increase in lead poisoning.
July 28: An epidemiologist for the state Health Department identifies a three-month spike in lead levels in Flint during the previous summer, after the switch to river water. She recommends further investigation in an email to her bosses, but they decide it was a seasonal anomaly.
August 7: A judge issues an injunction ordering the city to roll back water and sewer rates by 35 percent and stop shut-offs.
August 31: Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards reports that 42 percent of 120 water samples he tested in Flint had elevated lead levels, and 20 percent had levels that require water systems to take action. Edwards explains that the water from the river is “very corrosive” and is leaching lead from plumbing in the city’s homes.
September: MDEQ dismisses Edwards’ findings and says the water meets state and federal safety standards, but it says it will introduce a lead-reduction plan by 2016.
Sept. 24: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Children’s Hospital, says a comparison in blood samples she undertook shows a jump in lead poisoning in Flint’s children. The state immediately attempts to discredit her. State officials insist their own samples don’t show the same results. MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel calls her findings “unfortunate.”
Oct. 1: After days of denials, state officials walk back their criticism and announce that a new analysis of their data shows Hanna-Attisha is correct after all. More children have lead in their blood since the water switch. Genesee County officials declare a public health emergency and urge residents not to drink the water.
Oct. 2: Gov. Snyder announces the state will buy water filters and test lead in schools. Within a week, he recommends that Flint reconnect to the Detroit water system.
Oct. 16: Flint switches back to Detroit water. But the damage is done.
Oct. 19: MDEQ director Dan Wyant says his staff made a mistake. They thought they employed a federal corrosion-control protocol that they believed was appropriate, and it wasn’t.
Nov. 3: Walling is ousted as mayor. Karen Weaver, who ran on the promise of solving the water crisis, is elected.
November: Residents file a federal lawsuit against the governor, the state of Michigan, MDEQ Director Wyant, the city of Flint and other defendants.
November: Sara Wurfel, Snyder’s press secretary, resigns to become public affairs vice president at Lansing, Michigan-based lobbying firm Truscott Rossman.
Dec. 14: Mayor Karen Weaver declares a state of emergency in Flint.
Jan. 3: Gov. Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, retires to join Detroit-based law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP.
Jan. 5: Gov. Snyder declares a state of emergency in Flint. The Department of Justice opens an investigation into the disaster.
Jan. 12: Now facing national criticism, Gov. Snyder sends the national guard to hand out bottled water and filters in Flint.
Jan. 14: Gov. Snyder asks President Barack Obama for federal aid.
Jan. 15: The Michigan Attorney General opens an investigation to determine any wrongdoing during the handling of the crisis.
Jan. 17: Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders discuss Flint and criticize Snyder during a televised debate.
Jan. 19: Gov. Snyder faces Michigan (and the world) at the State of the State address. He vows to fix it and asks for $28 million from the state budget.
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Southfield, Michigan, Democrat who serves on the House Oversight Committee, says: If Snyder wants the federal government to provide aid to Flint, then federal lawmakers can expect Snyder and Earley to participate in hearings. The committee has not yet asked Snyder to testify.
“The two people who were the decision-makers, the governor and Earley, have not signed up to come and sit before Congress to explain what happened: When did you know, when did you act and where was the breakdown that allowed this to happen?” Lawrence asks.
Jan. 22: Gov. Snyder hires two public-relations firms. There are many questions about where the money is coming from. The firms say it is not public money. Snyder makes no statement.
January: Aid floods in to help Flint residents.
Jan. 29: Tests show that some filters may not be able to overcome the high levels of lead still in the water.
Feb. 1: Michigan Attorney General tells MDEQ employees to find their own lawyers.
Union Plumbers volunteer to help fix the city’s pipes. They visit 1,100 homes in one day.
Feb. 2: The FBI opens investigation into the contamination of Flint’s drinking water.
Darnell Earley resigns as emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools.
Feb. 3: The U.S. House of Representatives Committees on Oversight and Government Reform began hearings on Flint’s water crisis. Darnell Earley does not appear — refusing a subpoena. Neither does Gov. Snyder. Many Flint residents attend and alternately “sobbed, cheered and shouted.”
Gov. Snyder says Flint’s residents deserve a discount on their water bills: “Flint’s average monthly water and sewer bill was $140 in 2014, much higher than neighboring cities, according to the Flint Journal. Under Snyder’s proposal, a family paying $140 would get about a $40 credit.”