Flint: The Poisoning Of An American City
When Flint, Michigan, changed its municipal water supply source in 2014, distribution pipes corroded and lead leached out into the drinking water.LEARN MORE
Nine years later, Scripps News Investigates found residents still waiting for the city to remove corroded pipes leaching lead into the drinking water.
On a recent spring morning, Adia McCullough poured bottled water over her son’s toothbrush. Robbie, a second-grader who loves science, doesn’t use a drop of tap water from the bathroom faucet. At 7 years old, he’s never done it any other way.
That morning, Adia washed Robbie's grapes for his school lunch with bottled water. She boiled his eggs with bottled water. She filled the cat bowl with bottled water.
"You're just vigilant every day. You shouldn't have to be vigilant for years and years and years and years and years," Adia said.
Nearly a decade after one of the nation’s largest public health scandals was set into motion, a Scripps News investigation found many residents here still waiting for the city to remove and replace the corroded pipes that have been leaching lead into Flint’s water supply. It’s something the city was court-ordered to finish years ago, but today residents in Flint are still advised by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of Michigan not to drink the tap water without getting special filters installed – until the city finishes the job.
In an historic legal settlement in 2017, the city agreed to dig up the underground water service lines for tens of thousands of Flint homes and inspect them for materials that could leach more lead into drinking water. Using state and federal dollars, the city promised to replace all of the lead and galvanized steel lines by January of 2020. More than three years later the work remains ongoing, as city officials let one court deadline pass after the next.
Just this past February, a federal judge determined "the city has violated and is violating the [settlement] agreement" to remove the threat of lead from area homes. Citing the city's "mismanagement" of the program, U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson concluded the city "has not done what it has promised to do."
Scripps News found the $100 million excavation project slowed to a crawl, with its management so disorganized city officials still don't know where much of the work needs to be done.
Stuck at 'more than 90% complete' — for years
Our independent analysis of the city’s progress reports, which Flint officials turned over to plaintiffs as part of the court settlement, found the pace of inspecting residents' service lines dropped more than 95% from a peak in 2018. In 2018, 10,946 homes had their pipes explored. In 2022, that number was just 385.
"We will not rush through this process just to say we got it done," Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley told Scripps News.
Neeley took office in November 2019 and is now in his second term. Under his watch, the city has missed three court-ordered deadlines.
Neeley said he was plagued by poor record-keeping from the previous administration. He also said the pandemic contributed to the second missed deadline. Scripps News asked him about the most recent court-ordered deadline his administration agreed to, but then missed, last September.
"Deadlines were set and deadlines were missed. I admit to that," he said. "Some could be contributed to me and some could be contributed to other pieces."
Scripps News asked Neeley if the city could provide a specific number of homes that still need their water pipes inspected for lead.
"Well, definitely we are in the 90th percentile," he said. When pressed for more detail, Neeley declined to provide an approximate number of homes where work still remains to be done.
"Giving you an approximate number, though I want to give it to you — I'm not being elusive with my answer here — but we're rounding out this project that we're scheduled to be able to complete this very, very soon."
Neeley said pinning down numbers was difficult, given the variables in the project, calling it a "moving target."
"It is very important to this administration to make sure that the life, health and welfare of every resident inside of this community is taken care of," he said. "We're going to stick with the number of more than 90% has been completed and we're finishing out the rest."
Scripps News discovered "more than 90% complete" is also the same claim Neeley's administration made nearly three years ago in August 2020, when the city put out a press release saying it was in its "final push to get the lead out."
The city's failed promises have trapped Adia McCullough in a bureaucratic maze.
"They came and spray painted the pipeline, they put down little flags and then they left and they never did the work," she said.
She said she signed paperwork multiple times over the years and has called the city repeatedly.
Scripps News talked to other Flint residents like her who say they've been waiting for years for the city to come to their house to find and replace the dangerous underground pipes that connect to their indoor plumbing. Some showed a written trail of documents supporting their claims, including repeated emails to the city, which Scripps News reviewed. In these cases, the city failed to send inspection crews, despite the relentless attempts of the residents.
"It feels like you have no power, no support," McCullough said. "It feels like the world just keeps going on, and you keep going on. But like, you don't matter. Like, everyone here is not important enough."
It's a feeling she hasn't shaken since the crisis began. She recalls how in April 2014, she and many other residents had concerns about the discolored and smelly water coming from their taps soon after the city switched its water source in a cost-cutting move.
"I definitely remember just instinctively not crawling into a bathtub because when you fill it up, it's brown water," McCullough said.
In October, six months after the switch, McCullough found out she was pregnant with her first child. That same month, General Motors (GM) announced it would stop using the Flint River as a water source at one of its plants, because it was corroding its engines. Officials permitted GM to make the move, but still reassured residents the water was safe to drink.
Finally, in October of 2015, a year and a half after the City of Flint changed its water source, officials told residents their water was not safe to drink. It came after unusually high levels of lead were found in the blood of many Flint children.
By then, McCullough had given birth to Robbie and he was four months old. She remembers the feeling of terror that hit her: Did I switch to bottled water soon enough?
Health risks up from 2021
The need to get the work done today remains urgent. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is among those that say there is "no safe blood level" for lead in young children, as it is known to cause learning delays and behavioral issues.. Though Flint’s water has stayed below the federal action level at 15 parts per billion for lead, testing by federal guidelines now shows levels trending in the wrong direction.
Since the crisis began, lead levels reached a low in 2021, testing at 3 ppb. But over subsequent testing cycles, they have crept up, with the most recent cycle showing levels tripling to 9 ppb in the July-December 2022 testing period.
"The lead levels in Flint's drinking water have not descended to the kind of low, consistent level that we would ideally like to see," said Addie Rolnick, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group that helped sue the state of Michigan and the city of Flint.
Rolnick said the most recent lead levels in Flint were concerning and characterized them as "high."
She said the lead water service lines, which connect water directly to people's homes from the city’s main water lines, are the biggest contributor to lead in Flint's drinking water.
"Our goal is to get the lead pipes out," Rolnick said, adding that the NRDC has taken the city of Flint back to federal court five times to try to get it to comply with the settlement agreement, which the city has still not met.
"Flint is being left behind again, and that cannot happen."
In Flint, residents reported more hair loss, rashes and nausea after the crisis. The full extent of the damage is yet to be seen, but other studies of residents here have shown long-term impacts from lead exposure.
Last May, University of Michigan research showed "math achievement for school-age children in Flint decreased and the proportion of children with special needs increased as a result of the Michigan city's water crisis."
Babies had lower birth weights when their mothers were exposed to Flint's contaminated water, Yale researchers found. Boston University researchers found nearly 1 in 4 Flint residents has PTSD — three times higher than national estimates.
"People look at you differently if you say you're from Flint," said McCullough.
She said kids and adults are living with the stigma the water crisis has left, in part because it's still not over. She's seen simple rights of passage for a child — like having a friend over for a sleepover — isn't an easy ask of other parents.
"They might not want to ask the uncomfortable question: 'Do you use bottled water?'"
Not just a Flint problem
Most cities don’t know where their lead service lines are buried. But this January, the EPA gave what it calls its most accurate picture of the national issue, estimating 12 million of the nation’s water service lines are made from lead or galvanized steel. Those estimates can be traced back to Flint, which helped to attract national attention to this issue.
Municipal, state and the federal governments began looking to Flint to learn as they decided to take on the issue of lead in America’s drinking water.
"The residents and activists of Flint deserve a ton of credit for that," said NRDC attorney Addie Rolnick. "You know, they've turned their personal crisis into a national issue."
Just last month, the EPA announced it is investing $3 billion to replace lead service lines across the country.
"There's funding being put in place," Rolnick said. "EPA is currently revisiting its federal standards for lead in drinking water, and we hope that they'll propose a strong rule that requires replacement of lead service lines nationwide."
No one at the wheel
But in Flint, how the project moves forward remains uncertain. Scripps News found key city leadership positions remain unfilled. After just a year on the job, the city's most recent director of public works, who oversees the city's water infrastructure and has historically led the project, retired in March with no replacement. The position was also left vacant for six months at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021.
That concerns Flint Councilmember Tonya Burns. She said public works is the city’s largest department — making up more than a third of all city employees. And since the crisis, she said it’s clear just how important that department is to Flint.
"And now we have nobody over that department. There's no DPW director.”
Just as residents cannot get answers, apparently elected officials cannot either. Burns said without a director, quarterly reports that are supposed to be given to council members aren't being turned over.
"This is a failure that could've been avoided," she said. "Those service lines should've been done."
Scripps News told Mayor Neeley we had spoken to residents of seven Flint homes, including McCullough, who said they tried and failed to get city inspectors to examine their water pipes. But, he had a hard time believing that could be true.
"I can't accept that as a statement of fact," Neeley said. "If they're calling here, we have health navigators going door to door ... City Hall is open every day. Our phone lines are active and operational."
The same day the mayor made that statement, residents alerted Scripps News that the city's "Get the lead out" phone number was not operational. When we tried the line ourselves, we heard a recorded message saying its message box was full, before the call promptly hung up.
Scripps News later reviewed emails from one Flint resident, who had written city officials last July to complain about outages with the city’s “Get the lead out” phone number. After we let the city know, a spokesperson told us Flint would request their contractor come up with a "permanent fix." We found the number worked for several days before going offline again. City spokesperson Caitie O'Neill later told us the issue was due to higher-than-normal call volume and wrote: "We have set up internal processes to monitor that the phone line facilitated by our engineering contractor is working."
Back in Mayor Neeley's office after wrapping up the interview, the mayor agreed to let us watch as he called his water department to inquire about the residents we brought to his attention. An unnamed employee told Neeley on speakerphone that Adia McCullough indeed had a contractor assigned to work on her home, but that seemed to be as far as it got, telling Neeley the city had "no information" about any work ever being done. The employee also verified that six other residents Scripps News spoke to still needed their water pipes inspected.
O'Neill said, after our interview and follow-up questions, the city had decided to double the number of inspection crews that were out documenting where the city still needed to repair properties it had damaged over the years in the process of excavating residents' water pipes. She also said the city's contractor placed a work order for the McCulloughs' home, and was scheduling and completing work for 275 other Flint residents who had still needed their water pipes inspected.
Adia McCullough said she doesn't have reason yet to trust more promises from Flint officials.
"Something that shouldn't have happened, should have been fixed immediately," McCullough said. “And we shouldn't still be here years later trying to prove that it's not fixed."
We'll be following this story. Email Carrie.Cochran@Scripps.com and Mark.Greenblatt@Scripps.com with questions or tips.
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