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Local attitudes could prevent ‘hard’ choices forced on Flint residents

FLINT, Mich. – First they noticed the skin rashes. Then came the months of fatigue. When their pots and pans began to rust, Flint residents knew something wasn’t right with their water.

For more than a year, after their drinking water source changed from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014, the water from their taps often looked discolored and smelled bad.

All the while, government leaders reassured residents and discounted their pleas for relief.

Now the nation knows what was hurting the residents.

Toxic chemicals, bacteria and lead poisoned the drinking water in Michigan’s seventh-largest city. Flint residents now rely on bottled water, like the 300,000 bottles passed out so far to impoverished areas of Flint through donations collected in Buffalo and Syracuse.

The circumstances in Flint are not likely to happen in Buffalo, which sits next to its drinking water source – Lake Erie. Flint, about 60 miles west of Lake Huron, relied on Detroit to supply its water before state officials, in a cost-cutting measure, started drawing water from the nearby Flint River in April 2014.

But the thinking, motives and oversights that put Flint leaders and state regulators on the path to an environmental crisis can happen in other communities.

The larger issue goes beyond geography and mechanics. It’s in the attitude of public officials and regulators toward a poor, minority community that resulted in a poorly executed plan and then a dismissive and slow response to questions and complaints afterward, Flint residents say. They and others warn it could happen to any poor community, whether over a water supply or pollution poisoning land or air.

“It wasn’t as if some stranger came along and poisoned the water,” said the Rev. Darius G. Pridgen, Buffalo Common Council president and pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church, which took bottled water to Flint. “They knew that the water source was dangerous. And they still switched it over. This wasn’t something that just happened.”

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Flint residents believe that what happened in their city – still decimated by the loss of its General Motors engine plant in 2008 – never would have happened in the more affluent university community of Ann Arbor.

“I’m real mad,” said Maurice Ratcliff, an organizer of the newly formed Flint Lives Matter. “You can’t do nothing with this water but flush it.”

Not only did public officials poison the city’s water supply, Ratcliff said, they tried to cover up their mistakes. While some in government knew to use bottled water, many residents weren’t told to avoid tap water until a few months ago.

Sherman Williams, a resident of Evergreen Regency public housing townhomes on Flint’s East Side, said he learned of the tainted tap water around New Year’s.

“We had been drinking it for more than a year,” Williams said. “No telling how long it’s been messed up.”

Scientists determined Flint River water to be 19 times more corrosive than Lake Huron’s water. The river water left many sick, possibly at least 10 dead from a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak and tens of thousands, including many children, exposed to lead when pipes corroded and disintegrated into the drinking water.

Many of the most serious problems could have been avoided if the river water had been treated with a phosphate-based chemical to prevent corrosion in water pipes. That treatment process would have cost about $60 to $100 per day, according to reports.

Even with the threat of lead poisoning, state officials haven’t moved fast enough in Flint, critics say.

Alternate water sources – like bottled water – are often not easily available. The replacement water is rationed, and residents are sometimes required to provide government identification to get any.

“We didn’t get asked for ID when they was handing out dirty water. They want ID for clean water? That’s a smack in the face,” Ratcliff said. “We need to have a water station set up at every major intersection.”

Protecting Buffalo

Pridgen, Delaware Common Council Member Joel P. Feroleto and others recently toured Buffalo’s water treatment plant along with health officials and city public works officials.

“We wanted assurances here in Buffalo our water was being tested frequently and not in any danger of the same types of things that were happening in Flint,” Pridgen said.

They learned:

• Buffalo’s water comes from Lake Erie’s “Emerald Channel,” a spot just south of the entrance to the Niagara River, known for superior clarity and reliable water quality.

• Treatment methods here include the “phosphate-based corrosion inhibitor” that was not used in Flint to prevent lead and other contaminants from entering Buffalo’s water supply system.

• Residents can keep up with the state of the city’s water quality testing online and are encouraged to contact city public works officials by calling 311 for testing if any concerns arise.

• An annual water quality testing program is being expanded in Buffalo to include more homes over a broader diversity of locations.

“There is a level of transparency here that even I was not aware of,” Pridgen said. “Nothing is 100 percent. But I have the confidence that if something were wrong with our drinking water that we have a system in place to catch it very quickly and remediate the problem.”

Beyond steps taken to ensure clean water for Buffalo residents, the mindset of political, health and environmental officials here also offers protection for vulnerable populations, Pridgen said.

“I think Buffalo is in a different position because many of the present leaders come out of poverty,” he said. “I come off of Winslow Avenue and the Perry Projects, so obviously, I have an eye on that poverty. Many of the Council members, many of the leading officials around here were not born with silver spoons in their mouths. So they understand the struggle of poor people every day.”

In Flint, the government response to the crisis has been criticized as slow.

Pridgen said he believes the response to a Buffalo crisis would be much faster.

“I believe if I called the governor’s office and said this same thing were happening in a part of Buffalo, I’m going to get a call back in probably like 15 minutes,” Pridgen said. “That’s the confidence I have right now in the leadership in both the city and the state.”

Water relief mission

Pridgen felt compelled to intervene in a city almost 300 miles away. His True Bethel in Buffalo and People’s AME Zion Church in Syracuse teamed up with Bob Rich III, president of Roar Logistics, to distribute more than 300,000 bottles of water in Flint over the last two weeks.

They called it “Operation H²O.”

Members of Pridgen’s congregation went into some of Flint’s roughest neighborhoods delivering water door-to-door.

Another multi-trailer shipment is expected later this month.

“This is one of the biggest tragedies in front of the United States right now, there should be government officials everywhere,” Pridgen said. “I expected to see FEMA trailers all over the place with constant flows of water, so much where they say to people outside, ‘You don’t need to bring any water, we got too much.’ ”

That hasn’t happened.

“I think there’s still difficulty in dealing with the fact that we have the poor among us,” Pridgen said. “And it becomes easier to marginalize them, ignore them, forget that they’re there. I went into one woman’s house and she had one bottle of water. One. And a baby. And you got to decide between Enfamil and cooking? That’s a hard thing. I didn’t understand it until I got there.”

Life with bottled water

It came as a relief to Bethany Walter when volunteers rolled up the back door of a U-Haul container truck at the Evergreen housing complex. She saw plastic-wrapped pallets full of bottled water stacked from floor to ceiling.

Bottled water is what the 49-year-old mother and grandmother who cares for three children under 3 years of age relies on these days to live.

“This water is helping,” Walter told The Buffalo News as she carried a case into the dim first-floor hallway at her townhouse.

“Other than that, we’re going to get poisoned if we drink (public) water, that’s why we’re being careful,” Walter said. “That’s why every water that’s come out here, we try and make sure we get it.”

Walter was down to her last case when the supply from Buffalo arrived.

“Basically, one person needs 10 water bottles a day to do what they got to do,” she said.

Routine parts of daily life – at kitchen and bathroom sinks, in the tub or shower and at the washing machine – are much different now for the people of Flint.

Many use the day’s first bottle of water for brushing teeth. Then the rest of the case goes quickly: for baby formula, boiling eggs, fixing a warm bowl of oatmeal, a cup of coffee.

Then, the dishes have to be washed. The pots and pans. Clothes. The baby. Yourself.

“It’s affecting all of us,” said Nasiyah Johnson, the mother of a 5-year-old boy.

A daily shower is an impossibility because the warm mist is laced with lead.

“It’s hard,” Johnson said. “We were breathing the water and it was still messed up. You have to deal with it, hope you’re not too messed up.”

Mary James, a Flint grandmother with a heart condition, drank, cooked with and bathed in the water because authorities insisted it was OK.

That ended in January.

“I do everything with the bottled water, everything,” James said.

Washing for James means warming bottled water on the stove and mixing it in a pan in the tub with another bottle at room temperature. When the temperature’s right, you can lather up and hand rinse.

“That’s the way I have to do it,” James said.

Flint’s residents say the government’s water distribution stations at fire halls around the city are woefully inadequate.

“One case, one household?” Walter asked. “That ain’t going to last nobody but a couple of days.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com