In The Flint Water Debacle – A Story of Successful Activism 

Flint water debacle

We tell a story with everything we do.

  • A story of our priorities — by what we give our attention to and spend our time on.
  • A story of our fears — by what we lie about and with whom we share the truth.
  • A story of our values — by what we create and what we destroy.
  • A story of our ethics — by when and for what we stand up or shut up.

Water is a basic necessity of life.  Lead is a known potent irreversible neurotoxin.  It is odorless, tasteless and invisible.  Lead can cause serious permanent conditions in children (as well as adults) including memory loss, developmental impairment, irreversible brain damage, speech issues, among others.

Flint water debacleFlint residents had no way of knowing they were being exposed to lead after the city of Flint changed its water source — without their water being properly tested.  And they had no proof they were being lied to about the safety of their water — because their water wasn’t being properly tested.

From its very inception, the Flint water debacle was a story of systemic failures — of failed priorities, failed decision-making, failed oversight, failed execution, and failed regulation.  It is a tragic indictment of single-mindedness, assumptions, expediency, complicity, loyalty and cover-up.

For years to come there will be a multiplicity of health issues for Flint families.  If we are all lucky there will be significant governmental fallout at all levels and changes made nationwide to prevent future tragedies.

But amid this man-made tragedy of political and government failure is a story of Hope.

  • A story of successful activism.
  • A story of citizens rising to meet the needs of the moment.
  • A story of priorities, actions and perseverance that were critical in changing the course of events.
  • A story of a mother, a bureaucrat, a professor and a doctor who forced Flint’s water crisis into the public’s conscience.

If you read nothing else about the Flint water debacle, please read two things — the Environmental Protection Agency’s High Lead Levels in Flint, Michigan – Interim Report and Timeline of Events dated June 2015 and Michigan Radio’s three-part series NOT SAFE TO DRINK (text and audio).

MIGUEL A DEL TORAL is the EPA Regulations Manager of Ground Water and Drinking Water who wrote the Interim Report and Timeline.  His report is a detailed and very telling documentation of the multiple and devastating missteps in the handling of Flint’s water by individuals and agencies within city, state and national government.  He knew the health consequences of these actions could be enormous for Flint water users.  He shared his report as widely as he could.

Some key issues following Flint’s change in water source:

  • Multiple and repeated (5) violations of National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR) for contaminants between August 2014 and June 2015.
  • Not using corrosion control treatment for lead and copper in water service lines as required by the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) despite knowing the city of Flint had extensive old lead service lines.
  • Using a water treatment for contaminants which was known to adversely affect lead levels by increasing the galvanic corrosion of lead in the plumbing network.
  • Using ‘pre-flush’ water sampling procedures, as directed by the city of Flint, which significantly lowers lead readings and doesn’t measure “worst case” conditions of water.
  • Continuing to refuse to implement corrosion control measures claiming it wasn’t necessary in opposition to EPA recommendation and despite evidence by both EPA and other researchers that Flint was experiencing high lead levels in their water due to lead service lines.

Please read his report.

Michigan Radio’s three part series NOT SAFE TO DRINK tells the local on the ground story of Flint’s water debacle.  It gives a horrifying glimpse of Flint’s antiquated infrastructure, unusable and missing city records as well as political/governmental obfuscation, negligence and incompetence at all levels (and particularly on the part of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.)

But, the main thrust of NOT SAFE TO DRINK is on the critical actions of a few key activists.  Ordinary citizens, who, in addition to Mr. Toral at the EPA, were determined to share knowledge and expertise, to expose the truth about Flint’s water and take actions necessary to protect the health of Flint residents.  And despite considerable and repeated backlash from government officials, they refused to sit down and shut up.  They repeatedly went to the media with their findings.

Lee Anne Walters, a Flint mother struggling with bureaucratic run arounds, medical misdiagnoses of her young sons, and toxic waste levels of lead and off the charts level of iron in her home water.  Testing of her water and water lines are discussed extensively in the EPA’s timeline.  Mr. Toral credits her persistence and calls.

“‘If there was a hero it was Lee Anne,’ he said. Walters was smart, persistent, curious and most of all, worried about her fellow Flintstones.”

Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer, and a professor at Virginia Tech with decades of expertise in the corrosion of old water systems.  He loaded up his van with test kits and grad students and drove them to Flint.  They processed more than 800 samples.

“…this is an imminent and substantial endangerment to children, and for me sitting 15 hours away, I can’t believe how people could just sit there and let other children drink that water,” says Edwards.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, head of the Pediatric Residency Program at the Hurley Medical Center.  Since children in Medicaid are recommended to get lead screenings she knew she had data that could determine what was happening to the children.

“she compared samples from before the city switched its water source, and after … the percentage of kids with elevated lead levels nearly doubled. That’s for children age five and younger, who live inside the city limits.”

Like the rest of us, these are people with busy complicated lives.  But it was their priorities, actions and persistence that finally forced the state of Michigan and the city of Flint to acknowledge the unhealthy water that Flint was providing to its citizens.  In October 2015 Flint was reconnected to Detroit water.

The issue of safe water is now at the forefront of our national discussion.  It is our turn.  Where will our priorities, actions and persistence take it?




    1. A few bit players have lost their jobs or resigned, but the key decision makers have their MO well honed. Deny, deny, deny, muddy the waters, scorn doubters, drag feet – repeat until attention is diverted.


  1. Great writing Linda. Out here in LA we are dealing with a gas leak by SoCal Gas near a residential neighborhood and families with children have had to be relocated. As usual the company says that it isn’t harmful. Where have we heard that before?


  2. Excellent summary with credible links to so that the history of the poisoning could be better understand. The scientist, physician and mom are true heroes, as they tried to raise awareness of the awful water being consumed by kids. These things should never ever happen.


    1. Elaine, Thank you so much! It just really struck me that if these 4 people hadn’t built the case and got the proof against what “officials” claimed was true, it would have stayed a local issue and swept under a rug. Knowingly poisoning thousands of people should be a criminal act no matter who is doing it.


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