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.
Facts: Flint, located 70 miles north of Detroit, is a city of 98,310, where 41.2% of residents live below the poverty line and the median household income is $24,862, according to the US Census Bureau. The median household income for the rest of Michigan is $49,576. The city is 56.6% African-American.
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 its sprawling industrial complex.
In 2011, the state of Michigan took over Flint’s finances after an audit projected a $25 million deficit. Even though Flint’s water supply fund was $9 million in the red, officials were using some of this money to cover shortfalls in its general fund. A receivership ended in April 2015, when the water fund was declared solvent and the remaining deficit was eliminated by an emergency loan.
In order to reduce the water fund shortfall, the city switched water sources in 2014. While a new pipeline connecting Flint with Lake Huron was under construction, the city turned to the Flint River as a water source during the two-year transition.
The Flint River had been the city’s primary water source decades earlier, but Flint switched to Lake Huron in 1967, purchasing its supply through the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
Contaminated Water Supply: Historically, the water in the Flint River downstream of Flint has been of poor quality, and was severely degraded during the 1970s, due to “the presence of fecal coliform bacteria, low dissolved oxygen, plant nutrients, oils, and toxic substances.” In 2001, the state ordered the monitoring and cleanup of 134 polluted sites within the Flint River watershed, including industrial complexes, landfills and farms laden with pesticides and fertilizer.
According to a class-action lawsuit, the state Department of Environmental Quality was not treating the Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agent, in violation of federal law. The river water was found to be 19 times more corrosive than water from Detroit, which was from Lake Huron, according to a study by Virginia Tech.
Since the water wasn’t properly treated, lead from aging service lines to homes began leaching into the Flint water supply after the city tapped into the Flint River as its main water source.
Health effects of lead exposure in children include impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and delayed puberty. In pregnant women, lead is associated with reduced fetal growth. In everyone, lead consumption can affect the heart, kidneys and nerves. Although there are medications that may reduce the amount of lead in the blood, treatments for the adverse health effects of lead have yet to be developed.
Timeline: 2007 – Flint prepares to tap into the Flint River as a backup water source, despite residents’ concerns about sewage spills and industrial waste. Flint is the only city in Genesee County poised to use the Flint River as an emergency water source, according to the county’s drain commissioner.
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, state treasurer, authorizes Flint to make the switch. One day later, the DWSD terminates its water service contract with Flint, effective April of 2014. There are further discussions, however, between Flint’s leaders and the DWSD about options that would allow the city to purchase Detroit water after the contract ended. Flint resumes buying Detroit water in October of 2015.
April 21, 2014 – The changeover to the Flint River is delayed by days as workers complete construction of a disinfectant system at the treatment plant.
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 letter is sent after the state finds that the level of disinfecting chemicals in the water exceeds the threshold set by the Safe Drinking Water Act. 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 Environmental Protection Agency (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 18, 2015 – Walters follows up with the EPA after another test indicates the lead level in her water is 397 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” because costs would skyrocket and “water from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint.”
June 5, 2015 – A group of clergy and activists file a lawsuit against the city, claiming that the river water is a health risk. The city attorney fires back in July that 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 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 the 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 sends the memo about lead in her tap water to an investigative reporter from the ACLU, Curt Guyette.
July 9, 2015 – The ACLU posts a video about the lead in Walters’ water. Flint Mayor Dayne Walling drinks a cup of tap water on a local television report to ensure residents that it is safe.
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?”
August 17, 2015 – The MDEQ orders Flint to optimize corrosion control treatment in the water supply after state testing from the first six months of 2015 reveals elevated lead levels.
August 23, 2015 – Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards notifies the MDEQ his team will be conducting a water quality study.
September 8, 2015 – The Virginia Tech team issues a preliminary report indicating 40% of Flint homes have elevated lead levels.
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 from the 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 the 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.
November 4, 2015 – The EPA publishes a final, redacted version of its report on high lead levels in three Flint homes, including Walters’ residence.
November 13, 2015 – Residents file a federal class action lawsuit claiming 14 state and city officials, including Governor Snyder, knowingly exposed Flint residents to toxic water.
December 14, 2015 – Flint declares a state of emergency.
December 29, 2015 – MDEQ Director Dan Wyant resigns after the Flint Water Advisory Task Force concludes the crisis resulted from a failure of state regulators.
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 clean water.
January 13, 2016 – Governor Snyder announces an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease occurred in the Flint area between June 2014 and November 2015, with 87 cases and 10 deaths. It is unclear, however, whether the spike is linked to the water switch.
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 agency issues an emergency administrative order to ensure state regulators are complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act and are being transparent in their response to the crisis. The EPA says it will begin testing the water and publishing the results on a government website. An EPA administrator who was notified in June about Flint’s high lead levels resigns effective February 1.
January 22, 2016 – The MDEQ claims the EPA has failed to note the state’s multimillion-dollar initiatives to address the crisis, including water testing, distribution of filters and medical care.
January 27, 2016 – A new federal lawsuit is filed in Detroit against the state, alleging the violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act.
February 1, 2016 – A spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s Office in Detroit tells the Detroit Free Press that the FBI, the US Postal Inspection Service, the inspector general of the EPA and the EPA’s criminal investigation division are assisting in the probe of the Flint water crisis.
February 3, 2016 – The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform holds a hearing on the Flint water crisis. Governor Snyder is not called to appear.
February 8, 2016 – Governor Snyder turns down an invitation to testify at another congressional hearing on the crisis, citing a previous commitment to deliver a budget presentation to the state legislature in Michigan. The committee does not have the power of subpoena.
March 17, 2016 – Governor Snyder testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
March 31, 2016 – Lawyers, 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 Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, 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.
April 25, 2016 – Flint activists announce the formation of a new initiative, the Community Development Organization. Created in response to the water crisis, the non-profit will assist and share information with those effected by the Flint River water switch.
May 4, 2016 – President Barack 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.
May 9, 2016 – Fired city administrator Natasha Henderson files a federal lawsuit against the city of Flint and Mayor Karen Weaver. Henderson claims that in February 2016, Weaver told former employee Maxine Murray to direct donors to a political campaign fund “Karenabout Flint” instead of to the Safe Water/Safe Homes fund. The Safe Water/Safe Homes fund is specifically for the residents who are suffering due to the water crisis. Mayor Weaver calls the allegations “outrageously false.”
June 22, 2016 – The 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.
— LAN responds to the lawsuit by stating it was “surprised and disappointed that the state would change direction and wrongfully accuse LAN of acting improperly, and will vigorously defend itself against these unfounded claims.” LAN also says the accusations ignored the assessments of investigators that the City of Flint and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality made the key decisions about water treatment. “LAN was not hired to operate the plant and had no responsibility for water quality,” the statement says, adding that the company “regularly advised that corrosion control should be added and that the system needed to be fully tested before going online.”
— Veolia also responds with “disappointment in Attorney General Schuette’s inaccurate and unwarranted allegations.” The company says, “the Attorney General has not talked to Veolia about its involvement in Flint, interviewed the company’s technical experts or asked any questions about our one-time, one-month contract with Flint.” The company says its “engagement with the city was wholly unrelated to the current lead issues.”
July 29, 2016 – Six current and former state workers are charged as the criminal investigation continues. One of the employees, Liane Shekter-Smith, is the former chief of the Michigan Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance. She faces charges of misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty for allegedly misleading the public and concealing evidence of rising lead levels in water.
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.
November 2016 – Dennis Walters, the husband of Flint advocate Lee-Anne Walters, files a complaint claiming that he is being mistreated at work by superiors and colleagues who resent his wife’s activism. Walters, a Navy veteran who works at a police precinct at the Naval Station Norfolk, says that he has been scheduled to work long hours with no breaks and denied opportunities to expand his skill set via training. The family relocated to Virginia because of the water problems in Flint.
November 10, 2016 – The state of Michigan and city of Flint are ordered to deliver bottled water to homes where the government hasn’t checked to ensure that filters are working properly. In court documents, the leader of a nonprofit group helping residents said that as many as 52% of the water filters installed in a sample of more than 400 homes had problems.
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 and force Flint’s drinking water source to be switched to the Flint River.
January 24, 2017 – The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says that lead levels in the city’s water tested below the federal limit in a 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.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story imprecisely characterized the process of the termination of the contract between the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and the City of Flint in April 2013. It has now been amended to reflect that the DWSD offered to continue to allow Flint to purchase Detroit water even after the contract ended, pending re-negotiations.