The Crisis in Flint Isn’t Over. It’s Everywhere.

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The Crisis in Flint Isn’t Over. It’s Everywhere

By Ben Paynter

Photographs by Dan Winters

A

At his home near Kearsley Park, on the east side of Flint, Michigan, Tony Palladeno Jr. grabs his keys and a pair of 1-liter medical-grade plastic bottles–one full and one empty. He filled the first yesterday, with slightly cloudy water from his own tap. To fill the second, he strolls a few doors down to a two-story home he once rented out. The place looks move-in-ready, with new windows, fresh trim, and crisp beige siding. But it’s vacant, just like three other rentals Palladeno owns on this block.

Some of his tenants moved out in the winter of 2015, after much of the city’s municipal water turned murky, reeking like swamp muck. Others stuck it out a little longer, even when the city issued boil advisories (E. coli in the water) and a notice about high levels of trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic byproduct of disinfectants.

That autumn, 21 percent of the tap water sampled from the dilapidated, bohemian neighborhood around Kearsley Park was positive for lead contamination. In fact, every residential zip code in Flint has houses that have tested hot.

In January, Genesee County health officials reported another waterborne threat–87 cases of Legionnaires’ disease in two years, with 10 deaths. It’s one of the largest outbreaks in US history. The entire city was vulnerable to either heavy metal or bacterial poisoning.

Palladeno’s bottles are part of a sampling effort run by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to map the chaos. Entering his rental, Palladeno ignores the chirp from a dying smoke alarm and heads to the kitchen sink to fill his bottle. “Bada bing,” he says, although it comes off flatly. Palladeno is supposed to drop his sample at city hall, but he has a more pressing concern. He’s not thirsty now, but he will be. So he steers his late-model Buick downtown, following signs tacked to wooden pallets leaning against trees and street posts. The messages–WATER PICKUP, with big blue arrows–lead to a fire station parking lot, where National Guardsmen in fatigues and orange vests watch over 6-foot-tall towers of bottled water.

You used to have to show ID–one case per person. After an uproar, that changed to two, no license required. Sometimes Palladeno and his wife come together and take four, stockpiling. Today one of the Guardsmen recognizes Palladeno and starts loading his trunk. “I tell you what I’m afraid of,” Palladeno says. “Once summer hits and the heat comes, we’re going to be fighting for this water.”

At city hall, he joins a procession of dazed-looking people dropping off water samples. It doesn’t feel like science in action. In fact, it’s a mess: Somehow many volunteers got the wrong kind of bottle, so their samples get set off to the side. Others have lost paperwork, so they’ve guessed at a few methodological particulars.

Palladeno was already skeptical. Like most Flint residents, he has come to distrust people from any level of government. He figures if anyone is going to save Flint, it’ll be people like him, who grew up there.

He has found someone to believe in, though–the person who was first to help, first to try to figure out what was going on in Flint, a folk hero scientist on the front lines of the battle against apocalypse. This is a town where uniformed guards deliver water to designated resupply drops and health care workers draw blood at overrun churches and elementary schools. Who can say whether the government guys are doing anything right? “When Marc Edwards comes in,” Palladeno says, “I can see if they are up to par.”

I

In early 2003 an Environmental Protection Agency subcontractor called Cadmus Group was looking into a singular problem: Homes all over Washington, DC, were springing pinhole leaks in their water pipes. So Cadmus hired a young environmental engineer at Virginia Tech named Marc Edwards as a consultant.

The leaks seemed confined to residential copper. PVC pipes and municipal lines weren’t leaking. That made Edwards think that the problem was in the city water supply. In the US, municipal drinking water is protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, which compels utilities to monitor things like microorganisms and the disinfectants used to subdue them. In 1998 the EPA tightened its standards on disinfectants, many of which can have their own toxic byproducts. One of the worst offenders is a classic: chlorine. Its main replacement, a chemical called chloramine (really just a mix of chlorine and ammonia), has lower levels of carcinogenic breakdown products, but it also makes the water corrosive–enough to eat through metal.

It turned out that the District of Columbia’s Water and Sewer Authority had in fact swapped chlorine for chloramine in 2000. But when Edwards went into homes to check the damage, he discovered something even scarier than leaks. The corrosive water was burning through service lines and solders–and those contained lead. The water was even pitting the lead-infused brass in water meters and faucets. At one stop on the first floor of an old apartment building, Edwards ran a sample of water through a portable colorimeter. He got an error message. After diluting the sample with distilled water, it still registered a lead reading of 1,250 parts per billion. The EPA’s threshold for lead is 15 ppb.

Lead is insidiously useful. It’s hard but malleable, is relatively common, melts at a low enough temperature to be workable, and doesn’t rust. The Romans used it for plumbing–in fact, that word derives from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. Even the Romans noticed, as early as 312 BC, that lead exposure seemed to cause strange behaviors in people. But as Werner Troesken, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains in his book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, lead pipes solved a lot more problems than they caused. The hydrologists of the 19th century knew that lakes and wells could harbor cholera; they needed large, clean bodies of water that they could pump into the city. Lead made those pipes possible.

In fact, lead was the key to a lot of technologies. It made bullets heavy, paint opaque, and gasoline more potent. It’s also toxic. To a human body, lead looks like calcium; we slurp it out of our environment and absorb it into our bones and cells, especially neurons. By 1970 it had become clear to scientists that unlike calcium, lead causes irrevocable damage to those neurons, disrupting intellect and development.

But the pipes were already in the ground. So in 1991 the EPA instituted the Lead and Copper Rule, requiring utilities to check water regularly. The critical level has changed over the years as new science has come to light, but today officials are required to take action if lead exceeds 15 ppb in more than 10 percent of residents’ taps. The metric is utilitarian, scaled to spot trouble just before it turns into disaster. It’s a good rule, as long as utilities follow it.

After houses in DC started showing up hot, Edwards checked into the city’s lead and copper protocols. The city was sampling at really wide time intervals, sending most of what was sitting inside the service line down the drain. Edwards had the agency retest on nonflushed lines and close the time gap.

Nearly every new sample showed lead well above the redline. Edwards implored the agency to test the whole city. Cadmus didn’t renew his contract.

On January 31, 2004, The Washington Post exposed the subsequent cover-up. According to a later congressional report, tens of thousands of homes–two-thirds of those tested–had tap water that registered above the legal action limit. Some samples tripped 5,000 ppb, the technical definition of hazardous waste. Worse still, the EPA was giving out bad health advice, telling people to flush their water lines in a way that actually increased exposure.

Edwards, meanwhile, had become so obsessed with the problem that he’d forgotten to maintain the well water for his own house, which had plunged to a dangerously low pH. “I wasn’t taking care of myself or my family or my job,” he says. “I had this moment of total panic where maybe I’d just poisoned my family with lead.” He couldn’t take it. One night Edwards thought he was having a heart attack; he’d developed an arrhythmia.

Marc Edwards begged the EPA to test all of Washington, DC, for lead, but it didn’t listen.