People living in Flint, Michigan, paid more for their water than people living anywhere else in the country, a new study found including during the months the water first became contaminated with lead.
Food & Water Watch, a group that advocates for clean food and water as well as government accountability regarding these issues, released the study this week. According to the report, which was conducted last year, Flint residents paid as of January 2015 an average of $864.32 a year for their water. The average Michigan household paid $323.47.
The study also compared private, for-profit utilities providing water against local governments providing public water and found that, on average, private water systems cost 58 percent more than public ones. But this was not the case in Flint, which uses a public system yet still charges more than the average private bill, which is $500.96 a year. The average rate for a public water system is $316.20 a year.
Flint’s rate “far exceeds what the United Nations designates as affordable for water and sewer service,” according to one of the authors of the study, Mary Grant. The United Nations has stated water and sewer services should be no more than 3 percent of a household’s total income.
In Flint, the median household income is $24,834, and 41.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to Census data. Going off of the median income, Flint residents paid an estimated 3.5 percent of their annual household income.
Flint switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River as its water source in 2014 even though the Flint River was known to be polluted. The move was supposed to save Flint millions of dollars. But residents saw a significant change in the quality of the water and complained of its funny smell, taste and color. The government insisted the water was safe, but recent information came out saying that the government had knowledge of the water’s contamination for months before informing the public and was even having bottled water delivered to state officials without the city’s knowledge that their water was still unsafe. The switch has also been cited as a possible reason for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014 in Genesee County, where Flint is located. The outbreak resulted in nine deaths, and no new cases of the disease were reported after Flint switched back to Lake Huron water.
Valdemar L. Washington, a Flint lawyer who has been fighting rate increases in court for the past four years, said that government officials have been using the money for other operations, which led to numerous rate hikes.
“They’ve been using that money improperly for years to fund the general operations of the city,” Washington said. Flint’s sewer fund had a $23 million deficit in 2012 compared to a balance of $36 million in 2006, according to Washington.
Grant, who serves as director of the Food & Water Watch’s Public Water for All Campaign, called Flint’s astronomical rates “an indictment of running water systems like a business instead of a public service.”
Last year, a circuit judge ruled that the city had to lower rates by 35 percent. Washington claims that not only were the rates not actually lowered by that much but that the ruling was also supposed to apply to an additional fee that the government charges its residents, but the government did not comply with this.
Meanwhile, the government’s proposed solution for the now lead-lined pipes has left some residents disappointed and angry. Gov. Rick Snyder stated that the city would apply a protective chemical coating to the affected pipes, rather than replace them. NAACP President Cornell Brooks said of the proposed solution, “You can’t continue to talk about a bargain basement Band-Aid for a high trauma wound.”
Some people have speculated that the crisis in Flint, which is 56.6 percent Black, is an example of environmental racism, a claim that the governor has vehemently denied.
The government released a statement saying that numerous experts recommended the coating process as an acceptable solution, including Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech University who is slated to testify in front of the House next month regarding the crisis.
Brooks threatened “civil disobedience” if the governor does not provide a “timeline, deadline [and] price tag” for replacing the contaminated pipes within 30 days. Speaking at a church in Flint, Brooks told listeners that the protests would be carried out “in the same way your grandparents may have engaged in [the] civil rights movement.”