A protester holds a sign that reads "Flint still doesn't have clean water." | Photograph credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Maya Richard-Craven

When asked if the city’s water is lead-free, Flint’s Mayor Sheldon Neeley said, “No amount of water is safe.”

“Flint still doesn’t have clean water.” 

Search on social media for that statement, and you’ll see it in the feeds of activists, policymakers, folks concerned about the quality of the water where they live, and even some politicians.

Indeed, it’s been nearly nine years since the Flint water crisis began in April 2014 when the nearly bankrupt, majority-Black city switched its water source over to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure. Foul-smelling, discolored water soon began pouring from the city’s taps. The water was so corrosive that by Oct. 2014, General Motors stopped using it in its auto manufacturing plants. Despite that, officials still didn’t properly treat or test the water. 

The result? Residents had to have bottled water trucked in so they could safely bathe, brush their teeth, cook, or have a sip of H2O.

And people died. 

An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease — a severe form of pneumonia — caused by the polluted water killed at least 12 and sickened at least 90 people.

In addition, thousands of Flint’s children ended up being exposed to lead. As the Environmental Protection Agency explains, “A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system.”

In some instances, exposure to lead can result in seizures, coma, or death. Folks are also at risk of cardiovascular problems, along with reproductive problems in men and women.

There is no safe level of lead exposure. 

But Flint’s newly reelected mayor, Sheldon Neeley doesn’t want the scandal to represent Flint in 2023.

“Our community is not defined by our crisis. What defines us is how we rise,” Neeley told Word In Black in a phone interview.

When asked if the water in Flint still has lead in it, Neeley said the city had passed all inspections since 2019, his first year in office. That was the same year the city promised to finish redoing the city’s water infrastructure. 

There’s nowhere in America that provides lead-free water in total.FLINT MAYOR SHELDON NEELEY

“We have passed every testing cycle, and they run in six-month increments to test for lead in water,” Neeley says. We have passed all state and federal standards as it relates to that as we continue to work to rebuild our infrastructure.” 

“No amount of water is safe, and there’s nowhere in America that provides lead-free water in total,” Neeley says. “Here in Flint, we’re under a strict amount of testing. We’re probably the most tested and the most monitored water system in the state of Michigan.”

According to testing data from February, the amount of lead in Flint’s water was around nine parts per billion, which is under the level the government demands action on.

There is no safe level of lead exposure. 

People still don’t trust their water — and they really shouldn’t.LATRICEA ADAMS, FOUNDER OF BLACK MILLENNIALS 4 FLINT

That’s why activists championing Flint — like Black Millennials 4 Flint founder LaTricea Adams — say city officials are not doing enough to end the water crisis.  

“Within the first one to three years, there was a public outpouring of support with gallons and gallons of water to support residents,” Adams says of the crisis in Flint. “A lot of those donations kind of stopped. Fast forward, and people still don’t trust their water — and they really shouldn’t.”

Adams founded Black Millennials for 4 Flint in 2016 to work towards eradicating lead hazards and exposure in Black and Latinx communities. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the city of Flint was 95% finished with replacing pipes in September 2022. 

The deadline to redo the city’s water infrastructure continues to get pushed back, and many residents have lost faith in the city’s leadership. December 2022 became another missed deadline for the reconstruction of the city’s water infrastructure. The city’s new deadline is August. 

“They have a deadline of August of 2023. They should have been done a long time ago. It’s really been disheartening to see how long it has taken,” Adams says. 

It may be difficult for the community to recover due to lasting health impacts and years of dragging on the pipe replacements.

Cedric Taylor, a visiting associate professor at The University of Michigan Ann Arbor, teaches a course on the Flint water crisis. He says he’s concerned about the potential long-term effects of lead exposure. 

“Somebody who was exposed to contaminants could see issues come up later in life,” Taylor says. “There are studies that are beginning to really look at Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as an outcome of this water crisis. These are things that are not going away anytime soon.”

Not only that, but Taylor, like many, believes the government’s response could have been much faster.

“I think much more could be done. I think they could have moved faster,” Taylor says.

As for Neeley, he emphasizes that “ever since my tenure as mayor, we have met the standard every single time.”

And Neeley warns that what happened in Flint could be coming to a city near you.

“Across our country, we have aging and old infrastructure, especially in poor underserved Black and Brown communities — communities that just haven’t had the level of resources that are necessary to replace the infrastructure,” Neeley says.