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In Flint, Residents Scramble To Get The Last Cases Of State-Provided Bottled Water

A water distribution center on Dort Highway in Flint, Mich.
Stephen Carmody
Michigan Radio
A water distribution center on Dort Highway in Flint, Mich.

Monday was an unseasonably cold April day in Michigan, with temperatures hovering around freezing most of the day.

Light flurries swirled the air outside of Teresa Wells' car. She sat in long line, stretching past fast food shops and strip clubs on Flint's southside. Wells was waiting to pick up a few of the remaining cases of bottled water at one of the city's four distribution centers. She wasn't happy.

"You know it's bad enough you got to shower and wash your hair in it," Wells fumed. "I'm paying buck-oh taxes for what? For poison water?"

It's become something of a mantra here for many Flint residents to say that their water is poisoned, since in a move to save money in 2014, Flint's drinking water source was switched to the Flint River. Improperly treated river water damaged city pipes, which leached lead into the drinking water.

The state has spent more than $16 million to distribute free bottled water to residents. But no more. That program is ending this week.

Is it better?

Flint reconnected to Detroit's Department of Water and Sewerage in late 2015. The city has replaced thousands of old lead and galvanized pipes and experts say Flint's water supply is now safe to drink.

"All the parameters are showing that Flint water is in the range of other cities with old pipes," says Marc Edwards, a water treatment expert.

The interior of the Flint water plant is seen on Sept. 14, 2016, in Flint, Mich.
Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
The interior of the Flint water plant is seen on Sept. 14, 2016, in Flint, Mich.

It was Edwards' team of researchers from Virginia Tech who first discovered that Flint's drinking water far exceeded the federal guidelines for lead three years ago. Recent testing shows significantly improved water quality.

The federal action level for lead is 15 parts per billion. Recent state tests show lead levels in the drinking water here now at about four parts per billion.

State officials say any remaining lead can be screened out using water filters, which the state will continue to provide free to Flint residents.

But convincing those residents to trust government officials who say their water is safe is a tough sell.

In part, that's because state officials initially downplayed problems with Flint's water. Some are even facing criminal charges for allegedly manipulating data to make lead levels appear lower.

Ari Adler, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder, says it's crucial to convince residents here to start using their tap water again.

"If we want people to be confident in the water that they are getting out of their taps, we can't say that in one breath and then in another one say, 'Oh, but here's bottled water that you can have if you want,' " Adler says. "The water is good to drink and that's what we encourage people to do."

Trust in short supply

The state has distributed millions of cases of bottled water at a cost of $22,000 a day. But with the new test results, the state says, that can stop.

But Flint residents such as LaShaya Darisaw still don't trust that the water is safe to drink.

"Although lead leads have decreased, residents believe that chemicals and bacteria in the water are at an all-time high," she says.

Darisaw and some Flint residents will travel to the state capitol on Wednesday to urge state officials to keep distributing bottled water until all of the city's old lead pipes are replaced.

But time is short. The supply of free bottled water is expected to run out this week.

Copyright 2020 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Stephen Carmody
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