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It's been 10 years since the start of a devastating water crisis in Flint, Mich.


Ten years ago, a water crisis began in Flint, Mich. Lead tainted the drinking water. A decade later, people are still asking if the water is safe to drink. Michigan Public's Steve Carmody reports.

STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: On April 25, 2014, then Flint Mayor Dayne Walling pressed the button, symbolically switching the city's drinking water source to the Flint River. He then toasted the switch with plastic glasses filled with tap water.


DAYNE WALLING: Here's to Flint.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here's to Flint.


CARMODY: Here's Dayne Walling today, nearly a decade after he was voted out of office.

WALLING: I have a great deal of shame and regret about that ceremony because of everything that came after.

CARMODY: And what came after was improperly treated river water that damaged pipes that created the lead-contaminated, undrinkable drinking water. The decision to switch from Detroit's water system to the Flint River was made by a state emergency manager appointed by then-Governor Rick Snyder. The intent was to save money and fix the city's multimillion dollar budget deficit. The result was hundreds of millions of dollars spent to fix the water system and help the community heal.

Snyder was later criminally charged, along with about a dozen other government officials in connection with the crisis, but problems with two separate state investigations eventually led to all the charges being dropped. A spokeswoman for the former governor said he is not doing interviews on Flint water. While the criminal case has fallen apart, there's been success for Flint residents in civil courts.

In 2021, the state of Michigan, the city of Flint and some businesses agreed to settle tens of thousands of claims brought by Flint residents. The settlement pot has grown to more than $650 million, but the process of determining who's eligible for a share of the settlement has dragged on much longer than expected. The special master appointed to oversee the review process said this month she hopes the initial phase will be complete by the end of June. An attorney involved in the settlement hopes the first checks will go out by the end of this year.


CARMODY: Is Flint's tap water safe to drink? That question remains 10 years later. The answer to that is complex, says Eric Oswald. He's the director of The Drinking Water Division of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. Oswald says tests of Flint's tap water continue to show the presence of lead, but the levels are within federal and state standards.

ERIC OSWALD: Safe means different things to different people. So the definition of safe that we use is the standards that are contained in the Safe Drinking Water Act, and those are changing.

CARMODY: This fall, the EPA is expected to update regulations that would give most cities until the late 2030s to replace lead pipes connecting homes and businesses to city water mains. Critics contend the process does not have to take that long. Since the water crisis replacing lead pipes has been a priority in Flint, since 2016, the city has replaced more than 10,000 lead service lines, but a federal judge recently found Flint in civil contempt for failing to meet a deadline to remove all of the city's lead service lines. There could be hundreds of lead pipes still underground, though the exact number is unclear. And it's not just Flint. There are an estimated nine million lead service lines in need of replacement across the U.S.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I need you to unstack those.

CARMODY: Outside Greater Holy Temple Church in Flint, a forklift is shifting pallets. Cars and trucks are lined up about a mile down the road, waiting for the church's weekly drive-through food pantry. The food pantry started during the early days of Flint's water crisis for people in need of bottled water. Cases of canned water and loose water bottles are still the first thing to run out. 82-year-old Carol Harris has been here every week since 2016, when she stopped using Flint water.

CAROL HARRIS: I don't drink it. I don't cook with it. I don't trust it. Not at all. No. They say it's OK, but I bet they're not drinking it.

CARMODY: So safe or not, repairing Flint residents' trust in the city's tap water will likely take much longer than fixing the system itself.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Carmody in Flint, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Radio since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting. During his two and a half decades in broadcasting, Steve has won numerous awards, including accolades from the Associated Press and Radio and Television News Directors Association. Away from the broadcast booth, Steve is an avid reader and movie fanatic. Q&A