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Flint, 5 Years Later


Clean drinking water from your tap - many of us take it for granted. Not in Flint, Mich., though. Five years ago today, officials in Flint switched the city's drinking water source. That set the stage for what would become a crippling lead crisis. Since then residents have seen their children's blood lead levels spike. Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reports.

STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: It all began with an optimistic toast on April 25, 2014.


DAYNE WALLING: Here's to Flint.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here's to Flint.


CARMODY: With plastic glasses filled with tap water, Flint Mayor Dane Walling and other city and state officials toasted the switch of the city's drinking water from Detroit's water system to the Flint River. It was done in an effort to save the struggling city millions of dollars. It ended up instead throwing Flint into chaos and costing the mayor his job. And several of those who toasted the switch that day were indicted on criminal charges stemming from what would become the Flint water crisis.

At first, Flint's nearly 100,000 residents complained their tap water wasn't drinkable. Cloudy, foul-smelling, tasting of chemicals, or worse. That was followed by multiple E. coli outbreaks and eventually the city acknowledging it was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But government officials persisted in defending the water as safe to drink. Increasingly, Flint residents didn't believe them, taking to the streets, demanding the city return to Detroit's water system.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Flint lives matter. Flint lives matter.

CARMODY: It took 1 1/2 years before government officials finally did switch back after independent testing revealed that improperly treated river water damaged pipes releasing lead into the city's drinking water. It was only revealed after the city's drinking water was switched back that a Legionnaires' disease outbreak had killed at least a dozen people during the switch. There are conflicting scientific opinions as to whether the Flint River water was the source of the outbreak.

In the past few years, 15 city and state officials have been indicted. About half have cut plea deals. No one has gone to jail. And the remaining criminal cases are stalled as Michigan's new attorney general tries to decide how to proceed. Meanwhile, multiple civil lawsuits against state and federal agencies and private contractors are grinding their way through the courts. After the switch, Flint was left with thousands of damaged water pipes, families surviving on bottled water and a city's psyche damaged.

DAN BUCCILLI: We are going to do some highlights today, freshen you up.


CARMODY: Stylist Dan Buccilli is talking with a client at his new hair salon in downtown Flint. Dan and his husband, David Custer, opened their business last month in a rehabbed print shop. Custer, who's also a local TV news anchor, says they wanted to build their business in downtown Flint in part because the city is better off now than it was before the water crisis.

DAVID CUSTER: I say, and we joke now, that we have some of the best water in the entire country now. We have brand-new pipes throughout our entire city.

CARMODY: And the persistent social media hashtag #FlintStillDoesntHaveCleanWater just isn't true. Tests show Flint's tap water now falls well within federal and state standards for lead, even better than many other cities. Even so residents are still advised to use filters on their taps as pipe replacements continue since lead particles can still shake loose. Federal and state funds are helping Flint fix its broken water system. That, in turn, is attracting business investment. City official Linnette Phillips says this year the city has about $200 million in new business investment coming in, from new auto parts manufacturing to a new culinary school.

LINNETTE PHILLIPS: Of course, no one would ever want to experience this travesty that the city of Flint experienced. But we have to be where we are, and to move forward from that.

CARMODY: But while businesses are moving forward, many city residents are having trouble doing so. Flint resident Melissa Mays has been one of the loudest voices during the water crisis. She remains involved in lawsuits and activism.

MELISSA MAYS: In some ways, we're better. In other ways, we're forever poisoned, damaged, traumatized. That's not going to ever be better.

CARMODY: And it's clear that Flint still faces a long road to recovery. For example, it'll be several years before studies currently underway can assess any effect on the cognitive development of thousands of young children who drank the city's lead-tainted tap water. Many say it's these children's future that may determine if Flint will truly emerge stronger from its water crisis. For NPR News, I'm Steve Carmody. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Radio since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting. During his two and a half decades in broadcasting, Steve has won numerous awards, including accolades from the Associated Press and Radio and Television News Directors Association. Away from the broadcast booth, Steve is an avid reader and movie fanatic. Q&A