Residents in Flint, Mich., are about to start paying the full cost of their water again, even though what's flowing from their taps has yet to be declared safe to drink without an approved filter.
Today, state officials will end a program that has helped pay residents' bills since a series of ill-fated decisions by state-appointed emergency managers left the city's water system contaminated with lead. Since that 2014 disaster, the state has spent roughly $41 million in credits to help offset local utility bills. Residents have gotten a 65 percent credit each month on their water use, while commercial accounts received a 20 percent credit.
Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, said the credits are ending "because the city's water meets all federal water quality standards under the Lead and Copper Rule and Safe Drinking Water Act, the same standards as other cities." She said the threshold honors an agreement reached by Snyder, the Flint government and state lawmakers who originally appropriated money for the utility bill credits. Even so, she added, the state will continue to provide water filters and filter replacement cartridges "to assure residents that the water is safe for consumption even as lead service line replacement is under way."
The news about the relief program is fueling another round of frustration in Flint, which has one of the highest water rates in the country.
"They want to make it look like they've resolved this thing, that it's fixed," said Tim Monahan, a carpenter who survived a harrowing bout of Legionnaires' disease after the water problems began. "It's been three years, and we still can't drink the water."
At a recent news conference, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said the state should continue to pick up the tab for residents' water until it is "tap-drinkable without a filter."
"This is a trust issue, that's what it is," said Weaver, who criticized state officials for giving short notice about the credits ending. She had urged that they continue through March and possibly longer.
Last month, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said the latest analysis showed the city system tested "below action levels of the federal Lead and Copper Rule and at levels comparable to cities with similar size and age of infrastructure in Michigan and across the nation."
"This is good news and the result of many partners on the local, county, state and federal levels working together to restore the water quality in the city of Flint," director Heidi Grether said at the time. "The Flint water system is one of the most monitored systems in the country for lead and copper, and we remain committed to continuing work in Flint as the city recovers."
Such results, however, don't necessarily ensure that the water is safe. City residents continue to be advised not to drink the water unless it has been properly filtered, and many residents still refuse to use it for cooking or bathing. They rely instead on bottled water.
Now that Flint residents will be responsible for paying the full amount of their water bills, the number of delinquent accounts in the cash-strapped city is expected to rise. If that happens, it could further hamper local officials' ability to pay for water from Detroit while working toward connecting to a more permanent water source. In addition, residents with delinquent accounts aren't eligible to have their aging pipes replaced — despite many lines containing a significant source of lead.
Monahan said he and other residents worry the state will also end distribution of bottled water, though officials have insisted that won't happen anytime soon. His monthly water credit has been negligible, only about $15 or $20 since he uses so little water these days. Even so, "it's the principle of the whole thing," Monahan said. "We shouldn't be paying for the water at all."
For decades, Flint paid Detroit to have water piped in from Lake Huron, with anti-corrosion chemicals added along the way. Then in early 2014, with the city under the control of an emergency manager appointed by Snyder, officials switched to Flint River water in an effort to cut costs.
But state officials failed to ensure the corrosion-control treatment was continued, and that oversight allowed rust, iron and lead to leach from aging pipes and wind up in residents' homes. The debacle exposed thousands of vulnerable children to high levels of lead, which can cause long-term physical damage and mental impairment, and the contamination also has been linked to the deaths of a dozen people who died of Legionnaire's disease. More than a dozen state and local officials have been charged with crimes in connection with the water crisis.
Nearly three years later, many residents still don't trust the water. And they trust government officials even less.