Return to Flint: After tainted-water crisis, residents hit with rising water bills

A year after lead-tainted water made national headlines, residents in Flint, Michigan, are still using bottled water for cooking and brushing their teeth while a new school is trying to help the area's children deal with effects of lead on their development.

Back in the Michigan town, CBC News found deep distrust of the water supply and the government

Sarah Conn says the effects of lead on her son Casimir are hard to measure, and the biggest challenge is determining if any behavioural issues are lead-related or normal childhood problems. (Michael Drapack/CBC News)

Residents of Flint, Mich., continue to suffer the physical and emotional effects of a tainted water crisis, and now there's fresh insult to their injuries: climbing water bills.

The state had subsidized the bills after mismanagement of the water supply sickened thousands. But that program came to an end last week, and now residents are paying sky-high rates for water they don't trust and won't use.

"It just feels disgusting because you have people who are using bottled water for their daily needs and then they're getting this monthly bill, super-high water rates, and then they're forced to pay for it," says Nayyirah Shariff, director of the community group Flint Rising.

You have people who are using bottled water for their daily needs and then they're getting this monthly bill, super-high water rates.- Nayyirah Shariff, director, Flint Rising

Sarah Conn is one of those people. Even though recent tests show the water now meets federal guidelines for lead content, her faucet, with its brand new filter, sits untouched. She's back to paying around $120 a month to the utility. Meanwhile, cases of bottled water flow into the house and get stacked up beside the refrigerator. She won't even give tap water to the dog.

"It's just like kind of become clockwork for us now. Just normal things like brushing your teeth, or trying to make food or even giving water to your pets, everything is bottled water," Conn said, pointing out tap water is used for dishes and nothing else.

CBC News first caught up with Sarah and her son Casimir last year, during the height of the Flint water crisis. He had just been tested and the results came back showing high levels of lead in his system from drinking untreated water.

The challenge for Sarah, and for thousands of other parents in Flint, is that the test doesn't make clear how much lead exposure Casimir had during a year or so of drinking tainted water; lead only stays in the body for three months.

During the height of the Flint water crisis, supplies of bottled water were distributed to residents. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

"I get really emotional about it, because I have no idea about the effects it will have," Conn said. "He could have cognitive problems and behavioural problems when he gets older and I won't know for sure if the lead is why, or not, and it makes me really sad."

The problems began in the spring of 2014 when the city of Flint, under the direction of state-appointed emergency managers, switched its water supply from Detroit's system to the Flint River to save money. The city didn't properly treat the more corrosive river water, causing lead from the aging pipes to leach into the system.

Residents immediately began reporting discoloured, foul smelling water, rashes and reactions. Nothing was immediately done and, as was later revealed, state and local agencies blamed each other for what ended up nearly 18 months of inaction.

The story garnered national headlines but much of the damage had already been done. A total of 13 state and local officials have been criminally charged. Residents have also launched a $722-million US class action lawsuit.

Thousands of children were affected by tainted water in Flint. The lawsuit estimates there were nearly 30,000 children, age 0-19, living in Flint during the 2015-16 school year. 

A special school for the poisoned

The very existence of Cummins Community School is a sad testament to how life in Flint has changed. The only requirement for admission is to be a child poisoned by lead.

Teachers here are trained to look for signs of lead exposure in how the kids act and learn, keeping an eye out for changes in behaviour. Lead is a neurotoxin, and the young are the most vulnerable as their brains are still developing. The biggest challenge for teachers like Sharneese Magee: trying to figure out if a child acting out is a part of normal childhood development or the lead effect.

"The earlier that you can catch that, the more that they will be successful in the future," said Magee who, on this day, was working in a class of two- and three-year-olds.

Some of the children at the school were not even born when the water crisis was at its peak. Some were exposed to lead in the womb. (Michael Drapack/CBC News)

Next door, Conn's son Casimir is in a class with children his age. His mother is confident the school's approach is helping.

"He'll come home and he has new skills that I notice all the time, like problem-solving skills" Conn said. "He'll put his finger up and be like, 'I have an idea!'"

There are children here who weren't even born when the crisis began. They were exposed to lead in the womb.

The school, which is a partnership between Flint Community Schools and the University of Flint-Michigan, is also essentially a research laboratory.

Some of the classrooms are equipped with observation windows, where researchers can watch the students without being seen. The school also provides free fresh meals because the nutrients help reduce the absorption of lead in children's bodies.

"We're really in the forefront of the research here because this has never happened before on this scale," said Bob Barnett, dean of education at the University.

Program head Bob Barnett says the school is near capacity, with a waiting list. Ground has already broken on a second location with expanded facilities to study the children. (Michael Drapack/CBC News)

In a town where school enrolment is declining, Barnett has a waiting list. They've already broken ground on a second location.

"On the one hand, it's some of the greatest work that I've ever been involved with, and we're helping kids who would not otherwise have a chance at getting the kind of help we're offering," Barnett said. "But knowing what caused this, how can you not help but be angry at a system where the trust has been eroded."

State of mistrust

Flint switched its water supply back to the Detroit system in October 2015.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed the Flint Water Relief Act in February 2016, giving residents a 65 per cent credit on their bills. Then, at the beginning of February this year, the governor's office informed Flint officials that the subsidy would stop at the end of the month. 

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said Snyder would not budge from his decision. 

"The governor feels he has fulfilled his obligation," Weaver said at a news conference last month. "He stated that Flint's water now meets the same quality standards as other communities in Michigan and meets the federal quality standards and in his opinion the water is good. And I told him that I disagree."

So do many residents who still refuse to drink the water. There is a lot of mistrust in Flint, aimed at every level of government.

Then there's the slow and painstaking process of replacing the aging lead pipes at the heart of the problem. So far, the city has done around 800 homes. The goal is to replace another 6,000 lead-tainted pipes this year. Some estimates say it will be 2020 before the work is complete.

Now that the state subsidy has ended, advocacy groups worry that residents unable to pay their bills will face shutoffs, which could have a domino effect.

"If you don't have an active water account, you're ineligible to get a pipe replacement," Shariff, of Flint Rising, said.

Early childhood educator Sharneese Magee works with children at a school designed especially to help those poisoned by lead-tainted water. (Michael Drapack/CBC News)

Flint residents are instead placing their trust in each other, hoping the solutions to their problems will come from within.

Magee, who was born and raised in Flint, feels a sense of responsibility to bring hope to its families.

"We just want them to know: you can trust us, you can trust us with your child," she said. "They trust us with their education, and as long as we're having that relationship together, and that partnership, we'll be good."

Conn hopes that's true. And while she has to remain optimistic for her son's sake, like so many parents in this city, there is always a nagging doubt.

"Sometimes I wish I never moved here," Conn said. "Sometimes I blame myself for not realizing what was going on, even though that sounds pretty irrational, but nobody knew."   

That doubts ebb and flow for many Flint residents. The only constant is the question hanging over their children: How heavy a burden will they carry with them? Experts say the answer won't come in months, weeks or years but rather decades.

"I don't know for sure, and I'll never know for sure, the rest of his life or my life — and that's one of the hardest things," Conn said.


Steven D'Souza

CBC News New York

Steven D'Souza is a Gemini-nominated journalist based in New York City. He has reported internationally from the papal conclave in Rome and the World Cup in Brazil, and he spent eight years in Toronto covering stories like the G20 protests and the Rob Ford crack video scandal.