The economically depressed city of Flint, Michigan, is making headlines across the country because there’s something in its water that shouldn’t be there.
You may have heard about the problems in Flint: about how the tap water can be brownish, stinky, funny-tasting. After denying there was a problem for more than a year, state and city officials finally admitted it – there was too much lead in the water.
On this hour of Reveal, you’re going to hear the whole story of how people in Flint went from trusting their tap water to fearing it. And thanks to Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith, who produced an incredible documentary called “Not Safe to Drink,” we dive right in.
Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.
Section 1 of 3 [00:00:00 – 00:14:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
When you turn on your faucet to get a drink of water, wash your dishes, take a shower, you don’t even think about it. You just assumed the water is fine. That’s what they thought in Flint, Michigan until…
Lee Anne: My 14-year-old got sick and it started coming through our filter, out the kitchen sink brown.
Al: Residents knew something was wrong, but getting officials to listen was nearly impossible.
Speaker 3: Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax. There is no broad problem right now that we’ve seen with lead in the drinking water in Flint.
Al: But there was a problem for the people who use the water.
Speaker 4: The state nurse told me, “Oh, I understand your son has lead poisoning but it’s not as bad as it could be. He’s just going to lose a few IQ points.”
Al: On this episode, we’ll reveal how lead got into the water in Flint, Michigan, and why it took so long to do anything about it.
Speaker 5: Reveal is brought to you by Squarespace, the all-in one website platform. Squarespace sites look professionally designed regardless of your skill level, with no coding required. They’re intuitive, easy-to-use tools. Squarespace is trusted by millions of people and some of the most respected brands in the world. You can get a free domain if you sign up for a year. Start your free trial today at squarespace.com. When you decide to sign up for Squarespace, make sure to use the offer code Reveal to get 10% off your first purchase. That’s squarespace.com, use the offer code Reveal. Squarespace, build it beautiful.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. In his State of the State address this past week, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder did something extraordinary. He sad he was sorry to an entire city.
Rick: To you, the people of Flint, I say tonight, as I have before, I’m sorry and I will fix it. No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe.
Al: Flint, Michigan is a working-class city of about 100,000 people, majority African Americans. The catastrophe the governor is talking about has to do with their tap water, something most of us take for granted. You’ve probably heard about the problems in Flint. The story has been making national news. Today, we’re going to tell you the whole story of how people in Flint went from trusting the water that came out of their taps to fearing it. We’re going to do it, thanks to Michigan Radio. They produced an incredible documentary called Not Safe to Drink,, which we’re going to bring to you now. Reporter Lindsey Smith begins the story in October of last year when she went to visit a family that found itself at the center of the Flint water crisis.
Lee Anne: Hey, Gavin, what do we say about the water?
Gavin: No [inaudible 00:02:46] water, the water is bad. We want it cleaned right now.
Garrett: We’re woken up with this [inaudible 00:02:51].
Lee Anne: They’ve been to enough rallies.
Lindsey: 4-year-old Gavin Walters has his rally cry down. Gavin and his twin brother, Garrett grew up in Flint. The fight for clean, safe drinking water has become a family affair. The boys’ mom and dad, Lee Anne and Dennis Walters; their older brother, JD; and sister, Kaylie, they’ve been to plenty of protests in the last few months.
Lee Anne: You guys like to go hold your signs when we go out and fight for the water, don’t you?
Lee Anne: Yeah.
Lindsey: When I saw Gavin last, Halloween was just around the corner. The Walters are one of these families that takes it pretty seriously. Lee Anne always makes the kids costumes.
Gavin: I’m going to be a monkey.
Lindsey: Not a monkey, he tells me. No. Mikey. He’s the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle with the orange bandana, you know the one, with the [inaudible 00:03:38].
Gavin: [inaudible 00:03:40] because Mikey fight bad guys. I’m going to fight bad guys.
Lindsey: Lee Anne Walters, Gavin’s mom, flashes him a big smile. She leans in close for a kiss.
Lee Anne: Give me a smooch. I love you.
Gavin: I love you, too, mommy.
Lee Anne: Hug then.
Gavin: [inaudible 00:03:58].
Lee Anne: That’s right.
Lindsey: Lee Anne Walters grew up in New Jersey, but she and her husband, Dennis, graduated from Kearsley high school, just north of Flint. They were high school sweethearts. He joined the Navy, ended up serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lee Anne’s family moved to West Michigan. They ended up meeting again years and years later. Fell back in love, have the twins. It’s actually quite the love story, but anyway.
Up until October, the Walters lived in a yellow, 2-story home on the south side of Flint. A couple of red maple trees shade the tiny front yard. Walters heads to the back of the house in a small room, off of the kitchen where the family keeps its stockpile of bottled water.
Lee Anne: Okay. This is our water stash. Once a week we go and we fill 40 gallons of water so that we have water to drink with, to cook with and to bathe Gavin and Garrett in.
Lindsey: Walters won’t let her kids drink any water from her faucet. She won’t even let her 4-year-old boys bathe in anything but bottled water. Preparing for bath time is quite the choir. Walters takes jugs of water she buys at the store, dumps them in large pots and heats the water on the stove. Once it boils, she dumps the water in the bathtub. Then she adds 3 or 4 gallons of cool water to get the bath at the right temperature. Over several months, Walters says she’s gotten pretty efficient at this routine. She’s got bath time prep down to about 45 minutes.
Lee Anne: Then in between, because we only do the bathing once a week now because, one, it’s expensive; and two, I don’t … The expense of all of this on top of the water bills. We do baby wipe baths in between.
Lindsey: Walters grabs the boys down with baby wipes almost every day. Luckily, her husband can shower at work, her two oldest kids, teenagers, they usually shower over at grandma’s house outside of town.
We’re going to spend quite a bit of time at the Walters place, and there’s good reason for that. See? There’s a lot of people in Flint who knew something was wrong with the water. This family’s story, especially Lee Anne’s role as a worried mother, changed everything about how the water crisis in Flint was handled.
People in Flint started complaining about their tap water early in the summer of 2014. That was right after Flint made a big switch, started pumping its drinking water from the Flint River. Up until then, Flint had gotten its water from Detroit. I’ll tell you more about that change a little later and why the town made it, but back then, Lee Anne Walters didn’t think it was that of a big deal. They just bought the house. Someone had stripped all the plumbing.
Lee Anne: We had to redo all the plumbing. We even solved that, the whole house filter. I’m like, “Yeah, it sucks. We’ve got this filter, so we should be good.”
Lindsey: Every drop of water that comes into her home goes through this filter. A few weeks after the switch, Walters noticed something was weird. She had just set up the swimming pool in the side yard for the summer.
Lee Anne: Gavin started breaking out every time he’d get in the pool.
Lindsey: The rash was bad enough that Walters took him to the doctor.
Lee Anne: The doctors kept telling us it was contact dermatitis. He’s coming into contact with something he’s allergic to.
Lindsey: Later, Walters says her doctors suggested it was eczema. They gave her a cortisone cream to rub on Gavin’s rash. By July, it wasn’t just Gavin. His twin brother, Garrett, got the rush, too.
Lee Anne: We took him in, and they told us it was scabies so we treated them with a pesticide.
Lindsey: Tiny mites cause scabies. Then, yes, the common treatment is a chemical that’s also in some pesticides, even mosquito nets and flea collars. Walters rubbed the prescription cream on her twin boys from the neck down.
Lee Anne: I spent a ton of money because all the laundry that we had, all the bedding that we had, we took it to a laundromat.
Lindsey: Walters was relieved when the boys rash went away, but that feeling didn’t last long. Walters remembers the day the rash came back because she had a bunch of people over to celebrate her daughter’s high school graduation.
Lee Anne: All the people that were here swimming and drinking the water, all of them broke out.
Lindsey: She scheduled another doctor’s appointment for her 4-year-olds. Same diagnosis. Walters really had some doubts about the scabies diagnosis, especially after the party.
Lee Anne: The third time they tried to convince us that it was scabies, I said, “Ah, ah, no.”
Lindsey: The cream wasn’t working on Gavin. He had that rash for more than a month straight. Walters wasn’t standing for it anymore. She took Gavin to a dermatologist down in Brighton. They scraped in between Gavin’s little toes, put it under the microscope.
Lee Anne: She verified by doing the skin scrapes, there was no scabies, there was no live anything, no dead anything, no eggs.
Lindsey: So no scabies, but she still didn’t know what caused the rash. Then, Walters noticed something. Gavin’s rash flared up every time he swam in the pool and every time he took a bath. Something clicked. It became clear to her right then that Gavin’s rash was caused by something in the tap water. Eight months after Flint started pumping its drinking water from the Flint River, Lee Anne Walters stopped letting her kids drink it, everyone from the 4-year-old twins to her teenagers, JD and Kaylie.
Lee Anne: We quit drinking the water in December when my 14-year-old got sick and it started coming through our filter, out the kitchen sink brown.
Lindsey: That was December 2014. Walters says the water had this orangeish-brown tinge that would not go away, even when she put a fresh cartridge in the water filter. At this point, she was putting a fresh cartridge in the water filter at least a couple times a month. Back when Flint was buying Detroit water, she only replaced it a couple times a year, so she called the city out to come take a look. They sent Mike Glasgow. He’s Flint’s Utilities Administrator. He’s a Flint native and he spent the bulk of his career working for the city.
Mike: Yeah, I remember this fairly well. A complaint had come through from her about discolored water, orange water.
Lindsey: Glasgow says complaints like Walters’ were common around this time, but there’s a reason this one stood out.
Mike: After the first day there, I said, “There’s a few ways we go about trying to clean this up. We can flush hydrants. I’ll have people from our service center get out and check the area, see if anything’s out of the ordinary. I’ll be back a week later as a follow-up. Usually we can clear something up in that amount of time.
Lindsey: A week later, Glasgow went back to Walters’ house. Her tap water looked exactly the same. It still had this orange tinge.
Mike: I just happened to have some lead and copper sample bottles with me. Since her water was still discolored, I started to worry more about corrosion.
Lindsey: People like Glasgow, those who help operate water plants in older cities like Flint, they worry about corrosion. It can be a sign that a city isn’t treating its water properly.
Water that’s treated correctly, that has the right chemical balance, it will actually coat the inside of old pipes. That coating helps keep metals like lead, copper, and iron from showing up in people’s tap water. Glasgow ran a test on Walters’ water.
Mike: About a week later I got the results, and it was pretty high for lead, so I called her right away to let her know.
Lindsey: The results were alarming enough that Glasgow called Walters right away, but he couldn’t reach her that afternoon. He left her a voice mail.
Voicemail: You have reached the voicemail box of 6-1…
Lindsey: Walters vividly remembers that message late that night.
Lee Anne: “Hi, Lee Anne, it’s Mike from the Water Department. I just wanted to call and let you know we got your test back. Please, whatever you do, don’t let your kids drink the water. Don’t make their juice with it. Please just give me a phone call back as soon as possible.”
Lindsey: Walters tossed and turned all night, worrying.
Lee Anne: How bad could the water be?
Lindsey: By the time Walters did get ahold of Mike Glasgow the next day, she was panicked.
Lee Anne: He was like, “Your number’s at 104.” I’m like, “Okay, what is it supposed to be?” He’s like, “Not over 15.” I’m like, “Wait, what?”
Lindsey: I just want to make sure you really get these numbers they’re talking about. There’s no level of lead exposure that’s considered safe, but any amount of lead in water above 15 parts per billion is a problem. At that level, cities are supposed to at least warn you how bad your lead levels are. The lead level in the water at the Walters’ place was seven times higher than that. At that moment, hearing that number, 104 parts per billion, Walters remembers she didn’t know what to make of it.
Lee Anne: Okay. I’m like, “What does this mean?” He’s like, “We don’t know.” He’s like, “We’ve never seen a number like this before in the city.” He’s like, “It’s the highest anyone’s ever seen.
Lindsey: Glasgow was adamant, no one drink the water. Don’t use it to cook with. Don’t brush your teeth with it. If you’re going to take a shower, wash dishes, or even do a load of laundry, let the water run for 10, 15 minutes first. Flushing beforehand helps lower lead levels, he said. A week later, Glasgow came back to do a follow-up test.
Lee Anne: That one came back at 397, and it was like, “Whoa. Okay. Here’s an even higher number. What the hell?” Then it was, “Okay, now, you’ve got to start flushing your water for 25 minutes before you use it for anything.”
Lindsey: After that test, Glasgow decided to keep a close eye on the water at the Walters’ place. He came out almost every week.
Lee Anne: They were seeing it consistently brown every week. They didn’t have any answers for me.
Lindsey: You can see iron in water. It’s what gave Walters’ tap water that awful orange tinge, but you can’t see the lead in water. It’s odorless, tasteless, and much more dangerous to your health. With numbers like that, Lee Anne Walters did what probably any mother would do. She took her kids to the doctor to get tested for lead. When the tests came back, the diagnosis wasn’t good for Gavin. The doctors said he had lead poisoning.
Lee Anne: After the fact, knowing I was giving this to my kids makes me sick because we should be able to trust the fact that we’re paying for this service and we should be able to trust the fact…
Section 1 of 3 [00:00:00 – 00:14:04]
Section 2 of 3 [00:14:00 – 00:28:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Amber: We should be able to trust the fact that we’re paying for this service and we should be able to trust the fact that it’s not going to harm our kids.
Al: The water wasn’t just affecting kids. When we come back, Flint officials try a quick fix that causes more problems with its tap water.
Amber: My eyes are burning in the shower and I would be like, “Oh my goodness,” I was going … I get off the shower and I can’t see for a minute because my eyes are burning.
Al: You’re listening to Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Cole: Hey folks, Cole Goins here. I’m the senior management for engagement at Reveal. If you want more important stories like the one you’re hearing right now delivered straight to your inbox each week. Sign up for our email newsletter. Every Monday, we’ll send you the scoop on stories you can’t get anywhere else from our newsroom and beyond. You’ll get exclusive looks at our reporting, behind the scenes dispatches from our reporters, and other opportunities to get involved. Just go to revealnews.org/newsletter to subscribe. That’s revealnews.org/newsletter.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I’m Al Letson, and today, we’re bringing you a special hour from the folks at Michigan radio. They’ve been covering problems with the water in Flint, Michigan for about two years. At first, people didn’t know anything was wrong with the water. They just knew they were sick. In the case of four-year-old Gavin Walters and his twin brother, they had a red rash that wouldn’t go away. Their mom, Lee Anne, tried everything. Creams, lotions, nothing worked. But after the town tested their tap water, she found the cause of the problem. The water had extremely high levels of lead. Lee Anne says Gavin was diagnosed with lead poisoning.
Lee Anne: It’s just crazy. How does this happen in the United States? We hear about it in Third World countries but how does this happen specifically in a state that is surrounded by The Great Lakes.
Al: It’s a good question. How did this happen? To understand that, we got to go back to 2013. Reporter Lindsay Smith picks up the story there.
Lindsey: In 2013, Flint was broke, like nearing bankruptcy broke. Flint had a string of these state-appointed financial hatchet men during this time trying to get the city’s finances straight. They were looking for savings everywhere, and they had their eyes on the expensive water they buy from Detroit. So when Genesee County decided to build a new water system, one that’s separate from Detroit, Flint was definitely interested in joining. Once it was clear Flint could save millions of dollars a year with the new system, Flint got on board. Here’s a report from TV station ABC 12.
Speaker 6: Earth moving equipment is digging the trench where the pipes will be installed.
Lindsey: But, there was a catch. The new water system wasn’t built yet, and it wouldn’t be ready until the summer of 2016 at the earliest. Once Detroit realized Flint was going to leave its system, it jacked Flint’s rates up even more, to the tune of $10 million over the two years the new pipeline would be under construction.
In the spring of 2013, Detroit kind of had Flint over a barrel. It was state treasury officials who got creative. Their solution: forget Detroit, Flint’s emergency managers said. Let Flint get real cheap water from the Flint river.
That brings us to April 25th, 2014. It was a Friday morning, a small group of city and state officials got together inside the Flint water plant. It was a big day, the day Flint stopped buying Detroit’s water. There was a countdown, and then Flint Mayor Dayne Walling pushed a tiny black button. That push of a button closed a valve in an underground pipe that brought water Flint Detroit. Flint was officially cut off from Detroit’s water. To celebrate, the group took small, clear plastic cups, filled them with the city’s new drinking water, in TV station WNEM’s report from that day, you can see them come together in a small circle, they raise their plastic cups, smile, and make a toast.
Speaker 6: Here’s to Flint.
Speaker 7: Here’s to Flint.
Group: Hear, hear.
Lindsey: But the celebrations didn’t last long. City residents started complaining right away. The water was brown or reddish. It stank, tasted weird. Darnell Earley was Flint’s emergency manager at the time of the switch.
Darnell: What we have to do is to respond to that, find a way to fix it, make it better, and move on.
Lindsey: But things did not get better. Four months after the switch, the city detected E. coli in the water. E. coli is a nasty bacteria that can make you very sick and even cause kidney failure in kids and the elderly, so residents were told to boil their water. These boil water advisories came out right around the time kids were heading back to school. Phyllis Brock is a lunch lady at Flint Community Schools. She says there was one little girl who would come into the cafeteria in the mornings, and she was really concerned about the water Brock was using to make her oatmeal.
Phyllis: My mom said …” so I had to go back and forth with her for about three days … “It’s bottled water, yes I boiled it.” “Mom said no,” and so finally I convinced her, she’d eat oatmeal again.
Lindsey: Brock’s boss, the executive chef at Flint Community Schools, says there were other problems.
Walley: At that point, some of our cooks started mentioning about how the water was smelling and how when they turned on that it didn’t look quite right.
Lindsey: Chef Walley Janeczek didn’t take any chances. Five months after the switch, he started buying gallons of bottled water in bulk to prepare and wash all of the school food with. Janeczek’s main concern was the E. coli. You can’t make food for a school full of kids laced with bacteria that can make you violently ill. Flint did get a handle on the E. coli problem, but killing the bacteria brought a whole new set of problems.
See, Flint started dumping chlorine into the water system. Now, people complained the water smelled like a swimming pool. But Flint resident Amber Hasan says the smell wasn’t the scary part.
Amber: I’ve been in the shower, I had my eyes burning. My eyes are burning in the shower and I was like, “Oh my goodness, like, what’s going on?” I get out the shower and I can’t see for a minute because my eyes are burning from whatever.
Lindsey: Meanwhile, six miles south of Hasan’s house, Lee Anne Walters started noticing alarming clumps of hair in her shower drain.
Lee Anne: I lost a bunch of hair. At one point, I had lost all my eyelashes. I still wear fake eyelashes because my eyelashes did not grow back what they were before. It makes me very self-conscious, so that’s now why I wear fakes.
Lindsey: If you’re thinking these people are delicate flowers, sensitive skin and eyes, consider this: Flint’s water was so caustic, it was damaging car parts at one of General Motors’ engine plants. Tom Wickham is a spokesman for GM’s Flint operations.
Tom: What happened was we had employees who were checking the parts and they noticed there’s something wrong here. There was some corrosion, some rust forming, and they decided to raise the red flag.
Lindsey: GM tried to treat the water to get rid of the extra chlorine that Wickham says was rusting the engine parts. It didn’t work well, so they brought in semi-trucks full of water instead. It wasn’t cheap.
Tom: I don’t have that number, that’s not something we would disclose, but when I look at, what I was told at the time was, it was just a lot of money.
Lindsey: Then, in January of 2015, about nine months after Flint stopped using Detroit water, people in town got a notice in the mail. The notice said Flint was in violation of the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Turns out, the city dumped too much chlorine in the water, so much that a by-product of the disinfectant, called trihalomethane, was above levels set by the federal government. Over time, exposure to trihalomethane can increase the risk of cancer and other health problems.
No surprise that angry people showed up again in droves at city hall, but their concerns were pretty much blown off.
Dayne: The city water is safe to drink. My family and I drink it and use it every day.
Lindsey: That’s Mayor Dayne Walling. He’s former mayor Wayne Dalling now, thanks to the water crisis. By this time, people were bypassing city hall, which wasn’t offering much help or even acknowledging the problem.
Last January 2015, in single-digit cold, people like Mike Sargent took matters into their own hands. They started giving out cases of free bottled water. Sargent spent the morning loading them into people’s cars and trucks.
Mike: You know, I knew that our intention would only be a band-aid on all that needed help.
“Hey, you have a good day.”
Lindsey: By this time, Flint had a new emergency manager. Jerry Ambrose insisted the water was safe. In fact, Ambrose seemed more concerned about bad press than bad water.
Jerry: It doesn’t have to travel very far out of Flint to see that this news has been picked up not just in the Flint area, but throughout the state, and even beyond that. There’s clearly a perception issue.
Lindsey: But Flint residents didn’t think it was a perception issue. At city hall, residents like Claire McClinton demanded the city reverse course.
Crowd: Water is a human right! Right, right, right!
Claire: We survived bacteria. We’ve had boil water advisories as a result. They put too much chloride in the water, we’ve got trihalomethanes, and it’s just been one disaster after another. I mean what do we have to do to get them to turn the water back on to Detroit?
Lindsey: But Ambrose was blunt: The city was broke. It couldn’t afford to reconnect to Detroit, even if it wanted to. Through that spring of 2015 and into the summer, folks hauled their milk jugs full of discolored water to meetings. They brought their hand-lettered signs down to city hall. Good Samaritans handed out bottled water. But the “Flint water crisis” hadn’t been coined as a phrase yet. Out-of-town reporters weren’t flocking to cover the rallies or tell the story, but then, in late June, something shifted.
In her little yellow house on the south side of Flint, Lee Anne Walters opened her laptop, and there, in her email, was a draft report from an EPA guy who had come to her house to check out her tap water. She immediately forwarded the email to a reporter she had met in the spring.
Curt: Oh boy, you know, talking about the hazardous waste levels of lead was certainly attention grabbing.
Lindsey: Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter who works for the ACLU of Michigan. The report showed lead levels at Lee Anne Walters’ house were way, way worse than she thought. We’re talking simply jaw-dropping numbers.
Let me put it this way: If you have a glass of water, and it has a lead level of 5,000 parts per billion, the EPA considers it hazardous waste. One sample from the Walters’ house had more than 13,000 parts per billion. That’s almost three times as much. That’s not even the scary part. The scary part is this report said there was reason to believe that the Walters could be a canary in the coal mine.
Curt: It’s not this individual home. It’s not coming from inside the home. It’s coming from outside the home.
Lindsey: We know now, from emails and other records, that for months, the EPA had been warning state officials that something was wrong with Flint’s water. Guyette managed to talk to the EPA staffer who leaked the lead report to Walters.
Curt: He wanted the information to get out, and he was willing to go outside normal EPA protocol in order to make sure that happened.
Lindsey: This leaked report, this was the very first time any official had publicly said Flint’s water may not be safe to drink. But back then, the federal EPA report wasn’t finalized, so besides this one conversation Guyette was lucky to have scored with the author, the EPA wasn’t talking to any reporters about it.
So back in July, I turned to Brad Wurfel, who the spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality at the time.
Brad: Check, check one two, check, check one two.
Lindsey: You got it.
Brad: I’m going to say things to you.
Lindsey: All right. Okay, so … Wurfel agreed to talk to me about the EPA report. The first thing I asked him was: what responsibility does the state have in making sure lead isn’t getting into people’s drinking water? I mean is that even your responsibility?
Brad: Let me start here. Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax. There is no broad problem right now that we’ve seen with lead in the drinking water in Flint.
Lindsey: It turns out, there was a broad problem, and it turns out the DEQ is exactly the agency responsible. We know now, the same week I talked to Brad Wurfel, was the same week some of the people he works with at the DEQ realized that Flint’s latest lead tests weren’t looking too good.
The tests were bad enough that at that point, they should have informed the public about the broad lead risk, but that’s not what happened. Instead, state and city officials kept telling residents there was no lead problem in Flint’s water, that this EPA report was wrong. It was written by a “rogue employee.”
Section 2 of 3 [00:14:00 – 00:28:04]
Section 3 of 3 [00:28:00 – 00:53:42] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Lindsey Smith: By a “rogue employee.” About a month after the EPA’s report was blasted all over the media, LeeAnne Walters went with a group of Flint residents and concerned pastors to Lansing. They were able to arrange a meeting with top officials at Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. Walters had hoped that, after she leaked the federal report, state officials would take their concerns more seriously.
LeeAnne Walters: They blew us off like we didn’t know what we were talking about.
Lindsey Smith: State officials told Walters and others that EPA employee who gave her the report had been “handled,” but Walters had met someone who did take her seriously. Later that afternoon, after that unproductive meeting with state regulators, she made a phone call that helped change the course of Flint’s water crisis.
Marc: Hello, Marc speaking.
Lindsey Smith: Marc Edwards is an environmental engineer and a professor at Virginia Tech. He studied corrosion of old water systems for decades. Edwards has probably tested 30,000 homes for lead in his career. He’s never seen anyone with higher lead levels than LeeAnne Walters’ home in Flint.
Marc: Okay. I got that.
Lindsey Smith: On that warm Tuesday afternoon last August, when Walters called Edwards to tell him how awful that meeting with the state went, Edwards remembers hanging up the phone and physically shaking with anger.
Marc: I mean this is an imminent and substantial endangerment to children, and for me sitting 15 hours away, I can’t believe how people could just sit there and let other children drink that water. I mean, how could you do that?
Lindsey Smith: Edwards couldn’t sleep. He decided he had to drop everything. He got four grad students together, a bunch of lead test kits. Two days later, they loaded up in Edwards’ thirteen-year-old white “soccer mom” mini-van and drove fifteen hours straight, directly to Flint.
By mid-August, the small research lab on the fourth floor of Durham Hall at Virginia Tech was a beehive of activity. Cardboard FedEx boxes full of lead testing kits from Flint started arriving for analysis. LeeAnne Walters and a group of Flint residents helped hand out the testing kits all over Flint. In all, graduate students, like Anurag Mantha processed more than 800 samples.
Anurag: We spent so many weekends here so that we could get the data and start giving out the results to people, because every hour, every day we delayed that thing, more and more people were still drinking the Flint water.
Lindsey Smith: The tests showed lead levels in Flint were pretty bad. Bad enough, that one afternoon in mid-September, Edwards went back to Flint. On the lawn in front of Flint City Hall, Edwards addressed several reporters and about two dozen Flint residents. Point by point, he explained why there’s a dangerous lead problem in Flint.
Marc: This problem has arisen because of what’s known as a corrosion issue. Most cities, like Detroit, have treatments for their water where they put chemicals in the water to stop corrosion. You can’t see it, but there’s an iron nail in this bottle here.
Lindsey Smith: He held up two small bottles of water. One with pretty clear water, you can see a small nail in the top. The water in the other bottle is orange. This is Flint’s water. It’s basically eating the nail. The iron nail is disintegrating into the water. Edwards says Flint’s corrosive water is doing the same thing to distribution pipes all over the city.
Marc: Flint is the only city in America that I’m aware of who does not have a corrosion control plan in place to stop this kind of problem. This water looks bad. It smells bad, it tastes bad, and this is part of what people have been complaining about.
Lindsey Smith: Edwards warned to the crowd, the real danger isn’t the iron you can see in the tap water. The real danger is odorless, tasteless lead, that’s also leaching from the distribution system. Edwards said people in Flint should protect themselves against the lead exposure immediately. He told them to stop drinking the tap water and advised them to buy a certified lead filter, or bottled water if they could afford it.
Al Letson: For some people, the damage was already done. When we come back, we’ll hear how state officials continue to downplay the risks of lead to Flint’s children.
LeeAnne Walters: The state nurse told me, oh, I understand your son has lead poisoning, but it’s not as bad as it could be. He’s just going to lose a few IQ points.
Al Letson: We’ll meet a Flint pediatrician who risked her reputation to change this city’s course. That’s next on Reveal.
Cole: Hey folks, this is Cole Goins again. Back in October, we asked you to share your favorite writing and reporting about water on Twitter using the hashtag WaterReads and you delivered. With this week show on Flint’s water crisis, we’re reviving the WaterReads hashtag to keep the conversation going. We’re looking for stories about how people are affected by and are responding to water-related issues in their community. Share link with us on Twitter by using the hashtag WaterReads. We’ll collect your submissions and share them on our own Twitter team at Reveal and then our newsletter. That hashtag again WaterReads.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. This hour we’re bringing you an investigation from Michigan Radio that exposes how water crisis unfolded in Flint Michigan. Last September, research scientists from Virginia Tech got involved. They warned people in Flint to stop drinking the tap water. They’d run tests showing high levels of lead in that water. Lead is especially harmful to young children. It can lead to things like lower IQ and attention problems, and once that lead gets into a kid’s blood, the damage is done. You can’t reverse it. Here’s Lindsey Smith with more.
Lindsey Smith: While researchers at Virginia Tech said don’t drink the water, city and state officials had a different message for the people of Flint. Your water is safe.
Brad: I don’t know how they’re getting the results they’re getting.
Lindsey Smith: Here’s Brad Wurfel who was the spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality back in September.
Brad: I know that it doesn’t match with any of the other surveillance in the area and I think that it, at the end, I don’t necessarily think it’s as important as the broader issue of reminding people that if you have lead service lines to your home or you’ve got lead pipes in your home, it’s worth being concerned about.
Lindsey Smith: The impression the state repeatedly gave is that the risk to Flint residents was no different than it was when Flint got water from Detroit. It was no different in Flint than any other Michigan city with lead service lines, but there were big differences between the water Flint got from Detroit and the water it pumped from the Flint River. The most important one was corrosion control treatment. This is what coats the inside of old lead pipes and plumbing, preventing water from corroding lead and other heavy metals from the pipes and getting into people’s tap water. Think of it like Pepto-Bismol but for pipes.
When Flint bought water from Detroit, it was treated to control corrosion, but when Flint started pumping water from the river, it didn’t use any corrosion control treatment. That’s because officials at Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality told the city it didn’t need to. Not right away, anyway. MDEQ said Flint needed a year or so to test the water first to figure out the right treatment. The DEQ’s Brad Wurfel put it this way.
Brad: It’s just a matter of getting it right. If I handed you a bag of chocolate chips and sack of flour and said ‘make cookies,’ we’d still need a recipe, right? They need to get the results from that testing to understand how much of what to put in the water to address the water chemistry from the river which is different from the water chemistry in Lake Huron.
Lindsey Smith: All the other water experts I talked to said this wait-and-see approach was a really bad idea. Without treatment, the protective coating on the inside of the pipes that built up over the years from Detroit’s water likely disappeared, and that’s what caused lead levels to spike in many homes in Flint.
When LeeAnne Walters discovered Flint wasn’t treating for corrosion control last March, she told the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA asked the state about it right away. At first, the DEQ said Flint was using corrosion control, but when the EPA asked what kind of treatment it was using, the state confessed: Flint wasn’t doing anything.
Peter: What happened in Flint is a very rare occurrence.
Lindsey Smith: That’s Peter Grevatt. He directs the EPA’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water. He says it’s really unusual for a city to go from buying treated water like it got from Detroit to treating its own. It’s fair to say state regulators had not dealt with this situation in recent memory. Because of the lead problems in Flint, Grevatt has sent a clarifying memo to all states, saying basically, you cannot not have corrosion control treatment. It’s too important to skip, even for a little while.
Peter: We have about 10 million lead service lines in the ground, so we know for certain that there are many communities that have building materials in their water distribution systems that could present a hazard to the population. More than 99% of the 52,000 drinking water systems across the country have been able to meet the requirements of the lead and copper rule and protect the public.
Lindsey Smith: 10 million lead service lines. Water service line is the pipe that takes water from the water main, in front of your house, to your house. Before the 1960s, many water service lines were made of lead. Many of the 10 million lead service lines that remain in the country are in older cities. Cities like Flint. Flint should’ve tested for lead at homes with lead service lines. People who live in these homes have the highest risk of lead exposure from their water. If a city’s water treatment isn’t working, that’s where it would show up first, but here’s the thing: Flint doesn’t even know where its lead service lines are.
At Flint’s public utility building, on the side of a hallway, there are six standard filing cabinets. On top of the cabinets is a stack of tattered, yellowing maps.
Robert: Well, the map you’re actually looking at is our newer set. The older set is actually underneath it.
Lindsey Smith: Robert Bincsik is Flint’s water distribution supervisor. Inside the filing cabinets are two incomplete sets of records. Some are like a time capsule, handwritten index cards going back a century. These index cards, these yellow maps, these are Flint’s records.
Robert: It’s not ideal but it is what we have, and there’s a lot of things about the water system I know that are just in my personal memory. We do with what we have and we try to do the best we can, and this is what we have.
Lindsey Smith: Flint doesn’t actually know where lead service lines are and which homes they feed. Because the records on those 100-year-old index cards aren’t organized in any kind of helpful way. Still, city officials relied on those records to pick which homes to test for lead. They also checked the water at the homes of some residents who called and asked to have it tested, and they sent all of those results to the state. What happened next kind of defies logic. The state picked out two of Flint’s samples that tested highest for lead, and it invalidated them. One of the samples the state tossed was from LeeAnne Walters’ house. It was by far the highest lead sample in Flint’s report.
LeeAnne Walters: I was told by the EPA that they couldn’t throw my samples out. That my samples had to be used.
Lindsey Smith: Officials with the state say they invalidated the sample for a technical reason, and of all reasons, it was that she had a water filter. The bottom line is, by throwing these two high samples out, Flint’s number shifted. It went from being just above the federal limit, to just below the limit. It meant city and state officials could continue saying the water was safe. It meant they wouldn’t have to mount a major campaign to tell residents how to protect themselves and their families from lead in their water.
I talked to Jim Sygo about this. He’s the guy the state put in charge of the DEQ’s water division after the department came under fire for its handling of Flint. I asked him: Even if it does turn out it was technically okay to throw out LeeAnne Walters’ sample, it just looks bad, right?
Jim: Well, there’s not a lot I can say about, a lot of things look bad to people until they understand what the process and the procedures are. I think our biggest point is we were following the requirements of the regulations basically in doing that.
Lindsey Smith: For awhile here, even after outside experts are raising the alarm about Flint’s lead problem, the state kept sticking to its message that the water there was safe. That is, until a Flint pediatrician decided to put her reputation on the line for Flint’s kids.
Mona: Hurley Medical Center is committed to the health and well-being of our patients.
Lindsey Smith: Hurley Medical Center sits less than a mile from the Flint River. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha heads Hurley’s Pediatric Residency Program. She says a longtime friend of hers had heard about Flint’s water problems, and suggested she take a look at lead levels in the city’s children.
Mona: We first ran the data just on our clinic patients, so the Hurley Children’s Clinic.
Lindsey Smith: Right away, she noticed a significant increase in the percentage of kids with elevated blood lead levels when she compared samples from before the city switched its water source, and after.
Mona: Our sample size was too small so I couldn’t go screaming from the rooftops. This is such a politically messy issue. We are a city chartered hospital. We get money from the state. It’s mayoral election season, so it is a mess.
Lindsey Smith: Hanna-Attisha got her hands on more data, pretty much all the data from the area, which goes to Hurley to get processed.
Mona: We ran those stats in hours and saw the same findings.
Lindsey Smith: Her findings said after Flint switched to the river for its drinking water, the percentage of kids with elevated lead levels nearly doubled. That’s for children age five and younger, who live inside the city limits. She rechecked her work over and over again. Before she went public, she wanted to, no, she needed to be sure about this. She gathered other area doctors together, shared the information. On a Thursday in late September, they held a press conference to reveal their findings. This group, not politicians, not activists, but doctors called on the city to switch from the Flint River, back to Detroit’s water, to protect public health. It was, forgive the pun here, a watershed moment.
Mona: I was shocked to see so many people there. I think every mayoral candidate was at this press conference. The city administrator was there, Howard Croft, the Public Works, everybody was at this press conference.
Lindsey Smith: State officials quickly tried to discredit Hanna-Attisha. Over the next few days, state officials tried to convince reporters that Hanna-Attisha’s numbers were wrong. Pretty quickly, she started getting calls and emails from reporters asking her to respond to numbers the state was releasing that tried to debunk her work.
Mona: I just started becoming almost physically ill.
Lindsey Smith: Hanna-Attisha was sure she had it right, but she’s basically getting a very public takedown from very powerful state agencies.
Mona: How can you not second guess yourself? How can you not feel like, oh my god, what did I do?
Lindsey Smith: She went back over the numbers. The numbers didn’t lie. It took several days, but eventually state officials did come around. They rechecked their own numbers and found Hanna-Attisha was right, but real quick, back to that press conference at Hurley Hospital. In addition to the politicians and public officials, there was another person in that conference room.
LeeAnne Walters stood at the back of the room, behind the TV cameras, watching Dr. Hanna-Attisha go through her slideshow. The slideshow featured a hypothetical Flint child. Hanna-Attisha detailed the struggles that this child might face after being exposed to high levels of lead. This child would be at greater risk of needing special education. At greater risk of behavior problems and ADHD. At greater risk of getting swept up into the criminal justice system. LeeAnne Walters listened to all of these things about this hypothetical child, and she shed a few tears for a very real kid. Her four-year-old son, Gavin.
LeeAnne Walters: The state nurse told me, oh, I understand your son has lead poisoning, but it’s not as bad as it could be. He’s just going to lose a few IQ points. No, that’s my child. How would you feel if someone told you that about your child? How is that fair to him?
Lindsey Smith: It took a couple of weeks, but eventually officials in Lansing hold their own press conference. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and other top state officials conceded. In the interest of public health in Flint, the city would stop using the Flint River for drinking water. After saying for months that Flint couldn’t afford to switch back to Detroit’s water system, the state, the city and the Mott Foundation managed to scrounge together $12 million.
On October 16th, with much, much less fanfare, some Flint official pushed that tiny black button at the water plant to reopen the valve to Detroit water. No more Flint River water. It was a victory for the people in Flint who’d been fighting for this for more than a year now, but it was a victory that came too late for LeeAnne Walters family. It came too late for Gavin. In October, the Walters moved from Flint to Virginia. Walters’ husband Dennis went from the Navy reserves, back to active duty. The Navy transferred them to Norfolk.
LeeAnne Walters: Part of the reason why my husband went, a big huge part of the reason why my husband went back to active duty was to get us out of Flint, because of what it was doing and the health concerns and the fact that we weren’t being listened to with our child being poisoned.
Lindsey Smith: Her four-year-old twin boys are already doing better in Virginia. No more weird skin rashes. Gavin is putting back on some of the weight he lost. In Virginia, even bath time has returned to normal.
LeeAnne Walters: All right, get in the tub.
Lindsey Smith: In Flint, the lead levels in the Walters’ water were so high she was told not to let her kids even touch it. Once a week, she’d spend 45 minutes warming up jugs of bottled water on the stove to bathe her twin boys, Gavin and Garrett. Now, she just turns on the faucet. Makes sure the temperature is right. Plugs the tub. Throws in a few plastic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You know, like most any parent in America.
LeeAnne Walters: I [inaudible 00:49:14] dress.
LeeAnne Walters: Yes?
Garrett: Do it again.
LeeAnne Walters: Do it again?
Garrett: I can’t.
LeeAnne Walters: One more time.
Garrett: After both boys get a good scrubbing, Walters goes to pull the plug.
LeeAnne Walters: [inaudible 00:49:25] in the water up always.
Garrett: [inaudible 00:49:27].
Gavin: Good for her.
LeeAnne Walters: Rob, we’re not playing in the water yet. Don’t trust with that, right?
Lindsey Smith: That’s Gavin here putting up some protest. He doesn’t want to get out yet, but his mom is still so wary about the safety of tap water. She doesn’t let the boys spend any more time in the tub than they need to. After everything this mom went through in Flint, you better believe she’s getting her water tested for lead in her new home, some 700 miles away. You can hear the boys are bummed, but Walters doesn’t back down.
LeeAnne Walters: Look at me. I promise you once all the tests come back and it says A-Okay you will take a really, really, really long bath. Okay?
LeeAnne Walters: All right, come on. Step up please.
Lindsey Smith: While bath time is back to normal in Virginia, the Walters still have a bottled water stash in the garage. She still uses bottled water to make everything from their morning coffee to the instant mashed potatoes at dinner.
LeeAnne Walters: I will not drink until it’s tested. I will never, ever trust a water source again, just because I’m told to.
Lindsey Smith: The struggle LeeAnne Walters went through as a mom, it’s put her in places she never imagined. Countless late nights worrying. Confrontations with government officials, pediatricians, people who just didn’t listen, refused to believe there was anything wrong. The experience has changed Walters and her family too. It’s not just the lead poisoning of one of her babies. Over the next few years, if Gavin has health problems or trouble at school, she’ll be wondering: is this a symptom of his lead poisoning?
Even now, even though Walters is no longer in Flint, she’s still fighting. She’s pushing for accountability from the state. She has testified in front of national panels, pestered US congressmen, insisting the regulations on lead in water get tightened up; in the hopes that no other mom has to go through this nightmare again.
Al Letson: Since this documentary first aired on Michigan Radio last month, a lot has happened. President Obama has officially declared a state of emergency in Flint. The US Attorney’s Office launched an investigation into the water crisis. The head of the Department of Environmental Quality Dan Wyant and the Agency Spokesman Brad Wurfel who we heard in the story both resigned. Just this past week, the EPA’s Regional Administrator Susan Hedman offered her resignation. For more on what you just heard plus our latest stories, go to revealnews.org.
We want to thank the amazing folks at Michigan Radio for bringing us this story of the Flint water crisis. The show was written, produced and reported by Lindsey Smith and edited by Sarah Hulett with help from Jennifer Guerra. Additional reporting by Steve Carmody, Mark Brush, Rebecca Williams, and other members of the Michigan Radio news team, including News Director Vince Duffy. Zak Rosen provided sound design for the show with help from our head engineer, my man, Mr. Jay-Breezy, Jim Briggs. Christa Scharfenberg, he’s head of studio. Susanne Reber is the executive editor, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics in Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.
Section 3 of 3 [00:28:00 – 00:53:42]