Flint Residents Tired Of Talk And Tests, Eager For Solution

Mar 18, 2016
Originally published on March 18, 2016 8:48 am

Residents in Flint, Mich., are still living in a state of emergency, waiting for answers about the safety of their water.

After almost two years of bad drinking water, it can be hard for them to trust researchers and officials – except for a group of independent researchers from Virginia Tech who exposed the problem last summer.

"So we trust them. We don't trust nobody else," says Bishop Bernadel Jefferson, a resident of Flint.

The researchers, led by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, returned to the city last week to retest the water — performing the only test that compares results from last summer to today.

Maggie Carolan, part of Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards' team, collects water samples and processes them in the back of their van in Flint.
Logan Wallace / Virginia Tech

The city switched back to treated water from Lake Huron last October. To determine if the situation has improved, they needed testing. Everyone — including state and federal regulators — is waiting for what the Virginia Tech team finds.

Pamela Mayes says her water had lower lead levels, but she still doesn't trust it. She and her husband cook and wash dishes using bottled water. They had bought a house in Flint and planned to stay and retire in it.

"But now we don't know what we're going to do, you know?" she says. "I can't live like this for a very long time."

The team is made up of Flint residents and Virginia Tech students on spring break. They're making phone calls urging people to pick up and drop off their water testing kits. They then box up those kits for testing.

Many people in the city are tired of all this talk about the water — they just want it fixed.

Anurag Mantha, a graduate student with the Virginia Tech team, says there are a few people who say they are done with all this testing.

"People have lost hope in the city, so when we call them, they're like, 'I don't want to do anything with this water business anymore.' Some people are very welcoming, they're like, 'Oh, Virginia Tech, definitely, we'll test our water for you. So we are getting mixed responses," Mantha says.

Marc Edwards and his student team assemble water test kits that will be sent to Flint, Mich., for residents to test their water for lead.
Logan Wallace / Virginia Tech

They tested 269 homes last summer and their goal is to get at least 100 of these retested.

The broader goal, though, is to get things back to normal in Flint.

But health experts say there's no safe level of lead.

The current federal action level in drinking water is 15 parts per billion. Virginia Tech's random sampling last year found that Flint was 10 parts per billion over that action level.

Edwards says he does expect these new tests to show lead levels are dropping in the city.

"We want Flint to at least meet the same lousy standard that every other city in United States is," he says. "So in order to meet that, there is really three, I think, results that people are waiting for."

He's watching his own test and two from the state.

Officials say they hope to finally have some answers for the people in Flint in a few weeks.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's hear from people who want some advice about water. We have heard so much about contaminated water in Flint, Mich., yet it is still not entirely clear what is happening inside the network of pipes carrying that water. Michigan radio's Mark Brush reports on the long-running search for answers.

MARK BRUSH, BYLINE: It's probably a safe bet that the drinking water system in Flint, Mich., is now the most studied water system in the country. More than 14,000 people have tested their water, and the state continues its own testing protocol. Add to that the EPA has a series of technical tests designed to find out what's going on inside the city's old water pipes. But for these people coming to the Bethel United Methodist Church in Flint, one group of researchers rises above the rest.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Virginia Tech.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Virginia Tech.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It would be Virginia Tech.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Virginia Tech.

BERNADEL JEFFERSON: So we trust them. We don't trust nobody else.

BRUSH: That last comment is from Bishop Bernadel Jefferson. It was Virginia Tech's Marc Edwards who packed up his minivan last summer and drove north. Testing the water in hundreds of homes, his team's research exposed the lead problem. And now they're back, trying to retest the water in the same homes they looked at last year.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: ...Is Bethel United Methodist Church.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Thank you. All right, thank you very much.

BRUSH: The team is made up of Flint residents and Virginia Tech students on spring break. They're making phone calls urging people to pick up and drop off their water-testing kits and then boxing up those kits. Pamela Mayes waited in a line to drop her testing kit off.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Your name, your contact information, your email address, kit number 80.

PAMELA MAYES: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Time out - I am so sorry that it took so long for you to get this done in.

MAYES: That's OK. It's OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: But thank you for your patience.

MAYES: I appreciate you guys.

BRUSH: Mayes says her water had lower lead levels, but she still doesn't trust it. And she and her husband cook and wash dishes using bottled water. She says they like the house they bought in Flint.

MAYES: And we wanted to stay in it, retire in it. But now we don't know what we're going to do, you know? So...

BRUSH: Why is that?

MAYES: Well, because I can't live like this for a very long time.

BRUSH: People in Flint have been living with bad drinking water for almost two years now. The city switched back to treated water from Lake Huron last October, so the situation is supposed to be improving. But they need testing to confirm that. And everyone, including state and federal regulators, are waiting for what the Virginia Tech team finds. This is the only test that is comparing results from last summer to today. Many people in the city are tired of all this talk about water. They just want it fixed. Anurag Mantha is a graduate student with the Virginia Tech team. And he says there are a few people who say they are done with all this testing.

ANURAG MANTHA: People have lost hope and - in the city. So when we call them, they're like I don't want to do anything with this water business anymore. Some people are really welcoming. They're like oh, Virginia Tech, definitely, we'll do - test our water for you. So we are getting mixed responses.

BRUSH: They tested 269 homes last summer. Their goal is to get things back to normal in Flint. While health experts say there's no safe level of lead, the current federal action level in drinking water is 15 parts per billion. Virginia Tech's random sampling last year found that Flint was 10 parts per billion over that action level. Marc Edwards says he does expect these new tests to show that lead levels are dropping in the city.

MARC EDWARDS: We want Flint to at least the same lousy standard that every other city in the United States is. So in order to meet that, there's really three I think results that people are waiting for.

BRUSH: He's watching his own tests and two from the state. Officials say they hope to finally have some answers for the people in Flint in a few weeks. For NPR News, I'm Mark Brush. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.