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Science & Environment

Obama To Travel To Flint, Where City Water Still Requires A Filter

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Obama heads to Flint, Mich. today to meet with residents still dealing with the water crisis there. He's only going to be on the ground in Flint for just a few hours. Even so, Michigan radio's Lindsey Smith says there's hope the presidential spotlight could help speed up some fixes.

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: While lead levels are improving in Flint's municipal water, that water is still not safe to drink unless it's run through a filter. But for a number of reasons, some residents still only drink and cook with bottled water.

Others won't even bathe in tap water, even though that's considered safe. You've got to remember people in and have been dealing with nasty-smelling, rusty-colored water for a long time. Lots of residents, like Amber Hasan, complained of skin rashes.

AMBER HASAN: I've been in the shower and had my eyes burning. My eyes are burning in the shower. And I would be like, oh, my goodness, like, what's going on? I'd get out of the shower, and I can't see for a minute 'cause my eyes are burning from whatever.

SMITH: But state officials repeatedly assured residents that Flint's water was fine. They did that for more than a year when it wasn't. Darnell Earley was Flint's emergency manager when the city switched drinking water sources in 2014 to save money.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DARNELL EARLEY: What we have to do is to respond to that and find a way to fix it, make it better and move on.

SMITH: But things did not get better. Soon the city detected E. coli bacteria in the water. Then there were high levels of a disinfectant byproduct. All the while, behind the scenes, health officials were alarmed about a spike in Legionnaires disease.

It wasn't until January that the public learned from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder that 10 people had died from respiratory disease caused by Legionella, a type of bacteria that loves warm stagnant water.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK SNYDER: That just adds to the disaster we already are facing with respect to elevated lead levels.

SMITH: The number of Flint kids with elevated lead levels has doubled, in some neighborhoods tripled. Governor Snyder has repeatedly apologized to Flint's residents for the state's role in the crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SNYDER: I understand their anger. I've been humbled by this experience.

SMITH: Back in March, Snyder told a congressional oversight committee he didn't know until last fall just how bad Flint's water was. Congressman Matt Cartwright wasn't buying it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT CARTWRIGHT: You were not in a medically induced coma for a year. And I've had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies.

SMITH: Since those hearings, criminal charges have been filed against three officials, including two of Michigan's environmental regulators, state bureaucrats who Snyder blames for not to treating the water properly. Michigan taxpayers are also paying for lawyers for the governor, though he hasn't been charged.

But the state attorney general says more charges are coming. And a separate federal investigation is going on too. In downtown Flint, De'Shawn Hussey and his buddy, Darnel Holliday, are walking to the bus station. And they say they're excited Obama is coming today, though they wish he'd been here sooner.

DE'SHAWN HUSSEY: It's better late than never. But at the same time, like I said earlier, he can come. But what is the difference going to be after he comes?

SMITH: Like many people here, Hussey and Holliday have heard a lot of talk from politicians, experts, even movie stars who parachute in and talk about what needs to be done to fix Flint's water problems. They say Flint needs much less talk and much more money.

Specifically, Flint needs money to replace thousands of old lead and galvanized water pipes damaged by improperly treated water. The Republican-controlled state Legislature and the U.S. Senate haven't moved as quickly on bills to help Flint as residents had hoped. So far, fewer than two dozen lead water lines have been replaced in Flint.

HUSSEY: I just want to know, is there anything going to be done about that?

SMITH: Yeah.

DARNEL HOLLIDAY: Like, is our water ever going to be back the same?

SMITH: Yes, there is free water available in Flint. Yes, Medicaid has expanded to help Flint's most vulnerable populations. Yes, there's a new focus on helping kids with lead exposure. But the big question on the minds of many here is, when is my tap water going to be normal again? And no one, not even the president, can answer that. For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.