Prove your humanity

Lead in water is a problem in Pennsylvania cities and communities, and in many other places in America, but we didn’t talk about it much before Flint. The city of Flint, Michigan has become a symbol for environmental injustice: a largely poor, majority black city where the public water supply became poisoned by lead after Michigan officials changed its water source to save money.

The Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier was in Flint recently at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference, and got a first-hand look at the lead crisis there.

Kara Holsopple: It’s been about three years since the Flint water crisis made national headlines. What’s the latest that’s happening with the water?

Reid Frazier: So Flint changed its water supply back to its original supply from Detroit that it had been using before the crisis, and it’s replaced a lot of lead service lines — those are the lines that go from the street to the house. And frequently, like in Pittsburgh, they’re made out of lead. The lead levels in water [in Flint] have returned to below the EPA standard. That’s the good news. The bad news is even though the city’s water is now technically clean, many people still aren’t using it. They don’t trust it.

LISTEN: “Is the Flint Water Crisis Over?”

The state of Michigan stopped providing bottled water earlier this year. But there are still these pickup locations scattered around the city, and those are being provided through private donations. We heard from one resident of Flint, Tia Ivory, who said she takes very quick showers because the water still gives her rashes.

And another problem, she says, is that there’s a stigma for people like her when folks find out she’s from Flint. She says people sometimes ask her if she’s clean. And the idea that somebody would think she would be physically filthy, she says, from bathing in her city’s water is really upsetting to her.

The anger, the lack of trust in the water, the feeling like people outside of Flint have turned their backs on them — it’s all pretty widespread. Multiple people told me they collect rainwater to drink rather than use the public water. It’s pretty remarkable. Some won’t even give it to their pets or use it on their flowers. They’re still afraid of what’s in the water.

KH: And I understand that a Legionnaires’ outbreak was also attributed to the water crisis?

RF: When the city changed water supplies, they changed the water treatment regime. And Legionella bacteria, the cause of Legionnaires’ disease, built up in the water system. There’s still disagreement as to why that happened. Some say it’s because there were low levels of chlorine in the water. Others say the new water source has warmer temperatures and that’s better for bacteria buildup. But the long and the short of it is, a dozen people died from this outbreak and dozens more became sick.

We met one of these people, Jassmine McBride, who was in the hospital for months and still struggles with health issues. She said she went into the hospital in August and woke up many weeks later. Doctors thought she wouldn’t make it. And this is just one of those under-the-radar impacts of a crisis like this.KH: This is not something that we’ve heard a lot on the national news. What is the overall feeling that you got from the people that you talked to there?

RF: Mainly people feel they were betrayed by the people and agencies and governments meant to protect them. And there’s a strong feeling that a lot of this neglect would not have occurred in wealthier, whiter communities. We heard from Debra Furr-Holden. She’s a public health scientist and director of the Flint Center for Health Equity solutions. She said to remember that this crisis was started by a cost saving measure, not by the city’s elected officials, but by the state appointed emergency manager who was appointed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder. And this, she says, deprived the residents of Flint of their democratic rights.

There’s this T-shirt that I saw people wearing there. It says “Flint Lives Matter.” And I think that encapsulates what a lot of people are feeling there, that the rest of society abandoned them.

KH: And that we still need to pay attention. What did you take from this experience in Flint, as a reporter working on environmental issues here in Pittsburgh.

RF: I got to say, none of what I saw in Flint seemed all that far fetched coming from Pittsburgh. We had our own lead crisis beginning a couple of years ago and the cities are remarkably similar. You have this historically depopulated, industrial city that’s heavily racially segregated; a city under state supervision for its finances, which Pittsburgh was for a while. And in both Pittsburgh and Flint, cost cutting measures really led to the lead crisis. In Pittsburgh, it was a change in chemicals. In Flint, it was a change in water source. Someone at the conference said there are many Flints out there because the things you need to have in place for a crisis like what happened in Flint are everywhere in America. They’re not just in Flint.