We Fear the Water: Residents struggle to cope with Flint water crisis

Water gushes from a fire hydrant along Harrison Street as part of a system maintenance program with the Flint Water Department thought to clear out potential contaminants from the water mains on Tuesday, May 12, 2015. (Brittany Greeson/GroundTruth)

It was April 2014 when, at the push of a button, the Flint River — which hadn’t been treated for daily use in over 50 years — became the city of Flint, Michigan’s main water source.

The responsibility of water treatment was passed from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the shoulders of the local water plant. Government leaders cited a potential savings of around $5 million over the course of two years for a city staring into the face of financial emergency.

As water plant operators used more chlorine to fight bacteria in the water, the presence of trihalomethanes (THMs) spiked. THMs are an EPA-regulated group of four chemicals that form with other disinfection byproducts when chlorine reacts with organic and inorganic matter.

When the water was tested on August 21, 2014, THM contaminant levels were higher than maximum levels allowed by the EPA, at eight different locations. The city was in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act. However, official notices to the residents — who had been bathing in and drinking the water — were not mailed until Friday, January 2, 2015.

Those who consume THMS’s in excess of the maximum contaminant level could face problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous system, and have an increased risk of cancer. THM’s have also been found by the scientific community to be easily absorbed through the skin and is more toxic than ingestion.

Protests erupted outside of City Hall demanding a change back to Detroit’s water. Many began buying bottled water and would do so for the coming months, refusing to drink what they believed were toxins coming out of their taps.

As of December 2015, a state of emergency has been declared by recent mayor elect Karyn Weaver. As elevated levels of lead have been found in the homes of many of Flint’s residents as well as in the blood of local children, a looming sense of fear remains with the City’s citizens.


Will Speilmaker, 52, of Flint and his son, Thomas Speilmaker, 16, trace the banks of the Flint river picking up trash during a community organized clean up day on Saturday, April 25, 2015 in downtown Flint. Speilmaker says that when he was a child, a local boy fell in the river and died. Since then there has always been something about the river that gives him nightmares.


Ronda Thorton, 40, a resident on the north side of Flint, rests in her living room chair after remarking about feelings of pain in her left shoulder and a numbness in her fingers on August 30, 2015. Thorton, who says her water was found to have high concentrations of lead through testing by Virginia Tech, believes that her illness is a result of Flint’s ongoing water issues. “I can’t afford the filters every single month. When you don’t have [finances] and you want to eat, you take your choice. Either the water or food,” Thorton said.


Melissa Mays helps her husband, Adam, wash chicken over the sink with bottled water as they prepare jambalaya for dinner at their home on Tuesday, May 12, 2015 in Flint. The meal for Mays and her family took over 10 bottles of water to prepare as they are fearful of using it to wash their food.


A map previously used during protests against Flint’s water quality hangs in the home of area resident Tony Palladeno Jr., 53, on Monday, May 18, 2015 in Flint. Palladeno has been active at protests as well as City Council meetings.


City Councilman Eric Mays expresses his strong disappointment in the one-week water quality update from Veolia North America, a consultant brought in to address the city’s violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act, during a City Council meeting in downtown Flint on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. “We wanted good water yesterday,” Mays said. The City of Flint paid Veolia $40,000 for their advice.


LeeAnne Walters, 37, of Flint, shows water she says previously came out of her tap and then through a filter. Walters, who has been active in protests, has been keeping the examples and documenting her own experience with the water through videos and photos on her phone.


The inside of an Ozone Generator is seen during a tour of the City of Flint Water Plant on Thursday, May 21, 2015 in Flint. The generator uses liquid oxygen and electricity to create ozone and kill bacteria in true water while also neutralizing organic compounds, taste, and odors. Over 36 million gallons of water a day come through the plant on a two train system.


Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft during a tour of the City of Flint Water Plant on Thursday, May 21, 2015. Croft says the decision to switch from the Detroit water system to the Flint river was made with sound advice.

“My position there was much more thought and foresight that went into the decision-making than many people recognize,” Croft said. “Decisions were made with multiple engineering firms looking at the situation. Decisions were made with the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) involved from the very beginning. Decisions were made with an understanding of the EPA regulations and an assurance that this was a safe decision. With that, the economics of the water rate, which was a significant issue in this city, it made sense once we were terminated from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system to pursue the interim time using the Flint River as a water source. The resulting savings to the City of Flint, given everything being shown to be safe by all the engineering studies, by all the regulatory agencies, is a significant savings. There are times in going through change that decisions cannot be vetted until further down the road.”


Hair samples are shown on a table at the home of Tony Palladeno Jr., 53, on Monday, May 18, 2015 in Flint. Palladeno alleges that Flint’s water quality is to blame for his recent hair loss.


The City of Flint Water Plant is seen from East Stewart Avenue and North Dort Highway on Wednesday, May 27, 2015 in Flint, Michigan.


The Rev. Alfred Harris, president of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, speaks from a megaphone demanding the Flint switch back to Detroit water as people gather outside of City Hall to march in protest of Flint’s water quality on Saturday, April 25, 2015 in downtown Flint. The march continued down the stretch of Saginaw Street and over to the Flint Farmers Market.


Bishop Bernadel Jefferson encourages the crowd to take action on the issue of Flint’s water quality during the Healing Stories on Racial Equity speaking event at the Flint Youth Theater on Saturday, March 22, 2015. The event was hosted by Flint Strong Stones and supported by the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion and included conversations about the quality of water and its connection to African-American neighborhoods.


Water gushes from a fire hydrant along Harrison Street as part of a system maintenance program with the Flint Water Department thought to clear out potential contaminants from the water mains on Tuesday, May 12, 2015.


Dennis Walters helps bathe his twin sons Gavin and Garrett, 4, alongside his wife LeeAnne Walters at their home on Wednesday, May, 27, 2015 in Flint. The family rotates between having their sons bathe at their grandmothers, who lives outside of the city, using bottled water and using baby wipes. The family says their tap water had given the boys rashes.


John Jamison, 50, of Flint, spends his evening fishing in the Flint River, the city’s water source, in downtown Flint on Monday, May 18, 2015.  “I think we should be grateful for what we got. Far more places have it much worse,” Jamison said when asked about the condition of the Flint’s drinking water and the recent issues surrounding it.

Photographer’s Note:

I had been showering in the water for a few months, drinking my bottled water and going about my work before it really hit me how bad the water crisis in Flint, Michigan was. I was an intern for The Flint Journal at the time and in watching talented staffers like Ron Fonger and Jake May tackle the issue, I felt inspired to get involved and to dive deeper into the issue.

I felt nervous about whether or not I could do the story justice, but went with my gut feeling that this was a story that had to be told. Flint was a second home to me. It is a city with a richness to it. It’s a city that has been through so much yet carries a strong sense of pride. To think that an environmental disaster like this could happen in the United States, practically unnoticed outside of local media, blew my mind.

It was one of the most humbling and simultaneously frustrating moments as a journalist to recognize that the only thing I could do to help would be to pick up my camera. I can remember how in the first months many city officials weren’t listening to those protesting outside of city hall. They were pegged as being crazy. I can remember attending City Council meetings, watching frustrated residents like Tony Palladeno Jr. leave the room in tears. Today, they’re just starting to be heard.

Flint is facing elevated levels of lead and children have fallen victim. Even activist LeeAnne Walters’s son, Gavin, who I had photographed months before, had lead poisoning. It shocked me to recognize that even a mother who had done all that she could to protect her children, acting as a water activist, couldn’t stop the toll that this water crisis has taken. Talking to more Flint residents, I see a common tone of exhaustion and heartbreak. I hear voices that are at a loss as to what to do next. The state of emergency is just one step in the right direction. No one knows how long it’s going to be before this is solved, however, what’s even more terrifying is the realization that we may not see it’s full impact until children like Gavin grow up.

I’m a photojournalist who became outraged for the people I was documenting. I showered in that water. I watched people like Bishop Bernadel Jefferson yell on a stage in demand of right to clean water. I watched people like LeeAnne Walters bathe their children with baby wipes in fear they would get rashes. I saw Rhonda Thorton debate whether or not she should buy food or buy bottled water — even after finding out her home had elevated levels of lead. This story isn’t finished yet, it continues to unfold as a solution has not been found. So naturally, I’m not finished yet either.