Here is a look at the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where cost-cutting measures led to tainted drinking water that contained lead and other toxins.
Flint once thrived as the home of the nation’s largest General Motors plant. The city’s economic decline began during the 1980s, when GM downsized.
In 2011, the state of Michigan took over Flint’s finances after an audit projected a $25 million deficit.
In order to reduce the water fund shortfall, the city announced that a new pipeline would be built to deliver water from Lake Huron to Flint. In 2014, while it was under construction, the city turned to the Flint River as a water source. Soon after the switch, residents said the water started to look, smell and taste funny.
Lead consumption can affect the heart, kidneys and nerves. Health effects of lead exposure in children include impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and delayed puberty.
A class-action lawsuit charged that the state wasn’t treating the water with an anti-corrosive agent, in violation of federal law. As a result, the water was eroding the iron water mains, turning the water brown. Additionally, about half of the service lines to homes in Flint are made of lead and because the water wasn’t properly treated, lead began leaching into the water supply, in addition to the iron.
Overall, more than a dozen lawsuits, including several additional class-action suits, were filed against Michigan and the city of Flint, as well as various state and city officials and employees involved in the decision to switch the source of the drinking water and those responsible for monitoring water quality. The range of remedies sought included monetary compensation for lead poisoning and refunds for water bills.
March 22, 2012 – Genesee County announces a new pipeline is being designed to deliver water from Lake Huron to Flint. The plan is to reduce costs by switching the city’s water supplier from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA).
April 16, 2013 – On the city council’s recommendation, Andy Dillon, the state treasurer, authorizes Flint to make the switch to Flint River water.
April 25, 2014 – The switch to water from the Flint River takes place.
August 14, 2014 – The city announces fecal coliform bacterium has been detected in the water supply, prompting a boil water advisory for a neighborhood on the west side of Flint. The city boosts the amount of chlorine in the water and flushes the system. The advisory is lifted on August 20.
September 5, 2014 – Flint issues another boil water advisory after a positive test for total coliform bacteria. The presence of this type of bacteria is a warning sign that E. coli or other disease-causing organisms may be contaminating the water. City officials tell residents they will flush the pipes and add more chlorine to the water. After four days, residents are told they can safely resume drinking water from the tap.
October 1, 2014 – The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) issues a governor’s briefing paper outlining possible causes for the contamination issues. Among the problems are leaking valves and aging cast iron pipes susceptible to a buildup of bacteria. The MDEQ concludes flushing the system and increasing chlorine in the water will limit the number of boil water advisories in the future.
October 2014 – The General Motors plant in Flint stops using the city’s water due to concerns about high levels of chlorine corroding engine parts. The company strikes a deal with a neighboring township to purchase water from Lake Huron in lieu of using water from the Flint River. The switch is anticipated to cost the city $400,000.
January 2, 2015 – The city warns residents the water contains byproducts of disinfectants that may cause health issues including an increased risk for cancer over time. The water is deemed safe for the general population, but the elderly and parents of young children are cautioned to consult with their doctors.
January 12, 2015 – The DWSD offers to reconnect the city with Lake Huron water, waiving a $4 million fee to restore service. City officials decline, citing concerns water rates could go up more than $12 million each year, even with the reconnection fee waiver.
January 21, 2015 – Residents tote jugs of discolored water to a community forum. The Detroit Free Press reports children are developing rashes and suffering from mysterious illnesses.
February 2015 – The MDEQ notes some “hiccups” in the transition, including a buildup of TTHM, a cancer-causing byproduct of chlorine and organic matter. In a background paper submitted to Governor Rick Snyder, the MDEQ states that elevated TTHM levels are not an immediate health emergency because the risk of disease increases only after years of consumption. Snyder announces a $2 million dollar grant to fix problems in the pipes and sewers.
February 26, 2015 – The EPA notifies the MDEQ it has detected dangerous levels of lead in the water at the home of Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters. A mother of four, she had first contacted the EPA with concerns about dark sediment in her tap water possibly making her children sick. Testing revealed that her water had 104 parts per billion (ppb) of lead, nearly seven times greater than the EPA limit of 15 ppb.
March 23, 2015 – Flint City Council members vote 7-1 to stop using river water and to reconnect with Detroit. However, state-appointed emergency manager Jerry Ambrose overrules the vote, calling it “incomprehensible,” claiming that costs would skyrocket and that “water from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint.”
June 5, 2015 – A group of clergymen and activists files a lawsuit against the city, charging that the river water is a health risk. The city attorney later says the lawsuit is baseless. The case is dismissed in September.
June 24, 2015 – An EPA manager issues a memo, “High Lead Levels in Flint,” warning that the city is not providing corrosion control treatment to mitigate the presence of lead in drinking water. According to the memo, scientists at Virginia Tech tested tap water from Walters’ home and found the lead level was as high as 13,200 ppb. Water contaminated with 5,000 ppb of lead is classified by the EPA as hazardous waste. Three other homes also have high lead levels in the water, according to the memo. Walters shares the memo with an investigative reporter from the ACLU, Curt Guyette.
July 13, 2015 – After the EPA memo is leaked by the ACLU, a spokesman for the MDEQ tells Michigan Public Radio, “Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” He explains initial testing on 170 homes indicates that the problem is not widespread.
July 22, 2015 – Governor Snyder’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, emails the Department of Community Health in response to reports by the ACLU and on public radio. “I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint. I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from DEQ [MDEQ] samples. Can you take a moment out of your impossible schedule to personally take a look at this?”
September 9, 2015 – The EPA announces it will assist Flint in developing a corrosion control treatment for the water. The next day, MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel tells the Flint Journal the city needs to upgrade its infrastructure, but he also expresses skepticism about the Virginia Tech study.
September 11, 2015 – After concluding that Flint water is 19 times more corrosive than Detroit water, Virginia Tech recommends the state declare that the water is not safe for drinking or cooking. The river water is corroding old pipes and lead is leaching into the water, according to the study.
September 24, 2015 – A research team led by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center, releases a study revealing the number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood nearly doubled after the city switched its water source. In neighborhoods with the most severe contamination problems, testing showed lead levels tripled.
October 2, 2015 – The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) reviews the data from Hurley Medical Center and verifies the findings. The state begins testing drinking water in schools and distributing free water filters.
October 8, 2015 – The MDEQ announces three Flint schools tested positive for dangerous lead levels in the water. Governor Snyder says the city will discontinue using Flint River water.
October 15, 2015 – Governor Snyder signs a spending bill appropriating $9.35 million to help Flint reconnect with Detroit for water and provide health services for residents.
October 16, 2015 – The city switches back to Detroit water. Residents are cautioned that it will take weeks for the system to be properly flushed out and there may be lingering issues. The EPA establishes a Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force.
December 14, 2015 – Flint declares a state of emergency.
January 5, 2016 – Governor Snyder declares a state of emergency in Genesee County. A spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s Office in Detroit tells CNN that a federal investigation is underway.
January 12, 2016 – The Michigan National Guard is mobilized to help distribute bottled water.
January 14, 2016 – Governor Snyder writes President Barack Obama to request the declaration of an expedited major disaster in Flint, estimating it will cost $55 million to install lead-free pipes throughout the city.
January 16, 2016 – The president declines to declare a disaster in Flint. Instead, he authorizes $5 million in aid, declaring a state of emergency in the city. The state of emergency allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to step in.
January 21, 2016 – The EPA criticizes the state’s slow response to the crisis and expresses concerns about the construction of the new pipeline to Lake Huron. The EPA says it will begin testing the water and publishing the results on a government website.
January 27, 2016 – A new federal lawsuit is filed in Detroit against the state, alleging the violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act.
March 17, 2016 – Governor Snyder testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
March 31, 2016 – Attorneys, including some with the NAACP, file a class action lawsuit against Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, PC, the state of Michigan, Governor Snyder and others. Plaintiffs seek damages for those affected by the water crisis.
April 20, 2016 – Criminal charges are filed against government employees Mike Glasgow, Stephen Busch and Mike Prysby. Busch, a district water supervisor for the MDEQ, and Prysby, a district water engineer, each face six charges. Glasgow, a former laboratory and water quality supervisor who now serves as the city’s utilities administrator, is charged with tampering with evidence, a felony, and willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor. All are on administrative leave.
April 25, 2016 – Five hundred and fourteen residents and former residents of Flint file a class action lawsuit against the EPA. The plaintiffs allege negligence and demand more than $220 million in damages for the EPA’s role in the water crisis.
May 4, 2016 – President Obama visits Flint to hear first-hand how residents have endured the city’s water crisis and to highlight federal assistance to state and local agencies.
May 4, 2016 – Mike Glasgow reaches a deal with prosecutors contingent on his cooperating as a witness in the investigation. Glasgow gives a plea of no contest to willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor, and the felony charge of tampering with evidence is dismissed. He is released on personal bond following the plea agreement.
June 22, 2016 – Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette files civil lawsuits against two companies for their alleged role in the Flint water crisis. Veolia North America is charged with negligence, fraud, and public nuisance. Lockwood, Andrews & Newman (LAN) is charged with negligence and public nuisance.
October 18, 2016 – The ACLU of Michigan files a class action lawsuit against school districts in Flint for exposing students to tainted water and inadequately testing children for learning disabilities that may have been caused by ingesting lead.
December 20, 2016 – Four officials — two of Flint’s former emergency managers, who reported directly to the governor, and two water plant officials — are charged with felonies of false pretenses and conspiracy. They are accused of misleading the Michigan Department of Treasury into getting millions in bonds and then misused the money to finance the construction of a new pipeline, forcing Flint’s drinking water source to be switched to the Flint River.
January 24, 2017 – The MDEQ reports that lead levels in the city’s water tested below the federal limit, according to recent six-month study.
January 30, 2017 – A $722 million class action lawsuit is filed against the EPA on behalf of more than 1,700 residents impacted by the water crisis.
February 17, 2017 – The Michigan Civil Rights Commission issues a report: “The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint.” According to the 129-page report, “deeply embedded institutional, systemic and historical racism” indirectly contributed to the ill-fated decision to tap the Flint River for drinking water as a cost-saving measure.
March 17, 2017 – The EPA announces that it has awarded $100 million to Flint for drinking water infrastructure upgrades.
March 28, 2017 – A federal judge approves a $97 million settlement, in which the state of Michigan agrees to replace lead and galvanized steel water lines in the Flint. The state will cover the cost of replacing water lines, the pipes that connect household plumbing to the main distribution pipe running beneath the street, for at least 18,000 Flint households by 2020.
June 14, 2017 – The Michigan Attorney General’s Office announces that several state officials have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with a Legionnaires’ outbreak between June 2014 and November 2015 that killed at least 12 people.
October 12, 2017 – The House Oversight Committee sends a letter to Snyder requesting clarification regarding his sworn testimony that he did not learn about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease in Flint until 2016. Questions about the accuracy of the governor’s statement are rooted in court testimony by one of his aides, who said he told Snyder about the outbreak in December 2015.
April 6, 2018 – Snyder announces the end of a free bottled water program in Flint, claiming the water quality has been restored. The program was part of a $450 million state and federal aid package. The state had been handing out bottled water and filters at several distribution points across the city and will stop once the current supply runs out.
July 19, 2018 – The EPA inspector general publishes a report that strongly criticizes the local, state and federal government’s delayed response to the water crisis.
August 20, 2018 – A judge rules that there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a criminal trial for one of the officials charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Legionnaires Disease outbreak. Nick Lyon, the state’s Health and Human Services director, allegedly failed to “to alert the public about a Legionnaires’ outbreak in Genesee County when he had noticed that another outbreak was foreseeable and…conducting an investigation of the Legionnaires’ outbreak in a grossly negligent manner.”