Flint Has Clean Water Now. Why Won’t People Drink It?

Weaver was narrowly defeated in her 2019 reelection bid by Sheldon Neeley, a state representative and former city council member who relentlessly needled the mayor for her mismanagement of the arduous project to replace the city’s lead pipes, calling her a “ceremonial mayor” who basked in the media spotlight.

When I spoke to Mayor Neeley, he acknowledged the difficulties Flint faces—public safety, sanitation and managing the city’s teetering pension system—and that the ability of residents to trust that the government can meet those needs was at an all-time low.

“People just want a government that works,” Neeley said. When I asked him about his evaluation of Weaver, he was guarded in his response, but invoked an oft-repeated campaign slogan—one that’s hints at Flint’s desperate need to believe in something beyond its own ongoing diminishment.

“The majority of voters thought I could deliver better things for them. And for the other half, I will serve them equally; I believe that over the last few months, we’re winning them over,” Neeley said. “We’re a community of victors, not a community of victims.”

In the past 12 years, then, Flint has had four different mayors. It’s also had four state-appointed emergency managers who are fully unaccountable to voters. Its water source was switched from a Detroit-owned plant on Lake Huron to the Flint River, and back again. On a deep level, it’s been drilled into Flint residents’ heads that they can’t trust their local officials to get the job done when it comes to even the most basic necessities, exemplified by the installment of the city’s emergency managers. And then they failed, too.

“There would not have been a water crisis if we had democracy in the city,” Shariff told me, pointing to how the city abandoned Detroit’s water source only at the behest of its austerity-minded, unelected state officials.

“We didn’t have the chance for residents to weigh in. Once things started to look hinky, local elected officials could have made a different decision.”

If you’re one of those residents, the water crisis isn’t just a story about lead leaching from corroded pipes, or the dizzying, Altmanesque cast of characters promising to fix it. The repair effort itself became an unending nightmare, marked by the orange flags and construction backfill that have endlessly dotted the city’s landscape since 2016, markers of the long, arduous process of replacing corroded lead pipes.

One of the city’s primary goals during its recovery has been very straightforward: Replace all of its lead and galvanized steel pipes with safer, more modern copper lines. But after that, nothing was simple. Like many older cities, Flint had no clear record of which pipes were outdated or dangerous; such information was scrawled on more than 100,000 note cards that languished in a city basement, some more than a century old. The information they provided was, to be generous, incomplete.

To remedy that and determine which homes were most likely to have harmful lead pipes in need of replacement, in 2016 a team of computer scientists at the University of Michigan developed a machine-learning model. Making its predictions based on homes’ ages and additional input from the state about which areas and residents might be at the highest risk, it had a 70 percent success rate, a rare spot of good news in a brutal half-decade.

“They were using this system to go to the homes that were most likely to have lead or galvanized [pipes], and they had a lot of success,” Mays told me. “Then AECOM took over.”

In late 2017, Weaver’s administration gave AECOM, a national infrastructure firm that boasts on its website of being one of Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies,” a $5 million contract meant to speed up the program. Instead, the city’s success rate in finding the pipes in question plummeted from 70 percent to 15—worse than would be expected if homes had been chosen completely at random.

The reason: AECOM had completely abandoned the University of Michigan computer scientists’ system, opening the door for Weaver to direct pipe excavations based on political considerations. Alan Wong, then AECOM’s project manager, told The Atlantic in early 2019 that her administration “did not want to have to explain to a councilperson why there was no work in their district.”

AECOM no longer oversees the program, having been replaced last year by ROWE Engineering, a local firm that conducted the initial phase of pipe replacement. (AECOM defends its work, telling POLITICO in a statement that the company is “very satisfied with the results delivered,” and noting it “exceeded expectations” set by the city’s pipe replacement program.)

Weaver, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, was roundly criticized in Flint and throughout the state for her handling of the pipe replacement program. She does, however, have an unlikely defender: Dayne Walling, the man she defeated to become mayor.

“In fairness to Mayor Weaver, I do think the citizens of the city deserved to see [pipe excavation] done in different parts of the city,” Walling said. “There could have been a combination of approaches, where the most capacity was focused on the highest-risk areas, and some could have been dedicated to, you know, complaints from someone who the model may not show is in a high-risk place. … I think you can do 75 percent of one and 25 percent of the other, but what actually happened was that it went totally the other way.”

Jim Ananich, the state senator and Flint politics lifer who has represented the city at the local and state level for 15 years, is equally sympathetic, saying the issues with pipe replacement speak to how the water crisis touches everything from public health to good governance and infrastructure.

“I’m not making excuses for anybody, but when you have a major program that no one’s ever done before, there’s going to be bumps,” Ananich said. “But you fix bumps, right? You don’t just keep them there. There was no question that the program was not the most efficient at times, and I think there were a lot of contractors that had never done this kind of work before. … Lansing [Michigan’s capital city] did this, and it took them 12 years to do it. We were trying to do it in two, and now we’re in our third or fourth year.”

Like nearly everyone I interviewed for this story, Ananich has his own personal story about dissatisfaction with the pipe-replacement program. In his case, tired of waiting for the city, he hired a crew to swap out the pipes on his own dime. But he acknowledges that many others are not as fortunate.

Chandra Walker-Smith is among them. “We had to have our yard torn up, and it took months for them to replace what they damaged, with no commitment to replace any of the landscaping we had there,” Walker-Smith told me. Walker-Smith conducts outreach for the National Resources Defense Council, contacting Flint residents who haven’t yet had their pipes replaced. She said that, in her experience, a majority of the people she encounters cite the high level of disruption to daily life as a major reason why they don’t want their pipes replaced.

Still, the city’s work has continued apace. Its most recent official update, from early October, shows that lead and galvanized steel pipes have been replaced in 9,769 homes. Fewer than 500 remain to be inspected. But even with that project finally reaching its completion after years of strife, and EPA administrators saying Flint’s water is “better than it’s ever been,” most of the Flint residents I interviewed said they’re still wary of what comes out of their tap.

“I don’t have detected lead anymore, and I still don’t trust it,” Ananich told me. “I’ll drink out of the tap on occasion, or make the coffee with it, but my son doesn’t.”