How Washtenaw County is responding to Flint's water crisis

When Ypsilanti resident Bryan Foley's friend Harry Hampton asked him to help deliver bottled water to Flint residents, Foley had just one question: "Where do you need me to be?" Foley is one of many Washtenaw County residents who've reached out to Flint in varying ways since news of the full magnitude of the city's water crisis broke last month. Foley, Hampton and other friends and community partners have since led a water drive that's collected and delivered thousands of cases of bottled water to Flint. They've solicited donations outside the Ypsilanti Wal-Mart store and engaged Ypsilanti High School classes in a friendly competition to see who can muster the most water.

"The outpouring of the Ypsilanti community was way more than what we expected or anticipated," Foley says.

In delivering the water, Foley says he and his team wanted to reach those most in need. With their first U-Haul load of bottled water in tow they stopped at two shelters, each of which accepted a donation that Foley says "didn't put a dent in" the water his team had brought. 

"We said, ‘Let's get up in the hood,'" Foley says. "That's where we want to be...We didn't make any announcement. We just parked the U-Haul in the parking lot of this desolate mall and got in position. When we opened the tailgate, no exaggeration, people were coming from everywhere. No announcement. We were planning to get out and put a sign on the truck and all that kind of good stuff. We didn't have any time to do that."

Foley says he's committed to continuing the water drive "however long we can continue to get these donations, and however long this has got to be done," although he says the effort is "not organized in any way."

"We're just doing it from out of our heart," he says.

Foley's "unorganized" effort isn't the only such work being done in Washtenaw County. State representative Adam Zemke, who represents the 55th district, has been leading the Washtenaw Water Drive For Flint. The drive has collected tens of thousands of bottles from dropoff locations scattered around the county, and raised over $23,000 to buy more through a GoFundMe campaign. Zemke has personally distributed water in Flint himself.

"It's really a heart-breaker," he says. "[Flint residents] are very resilient. They're grateful about the donations, but at the same time they have a smile on their face I think it hurts even worse because they never should have been put in this position and it's not their fault."

Response through protest

Other locals have endeavored to address the political causes behind the situation in Flint. In early January, before the Flint story broke nationally, Ann Arbor resident and University of Michigan student Cassandra Van Dam attended a protest in Flint calling for Gov. Rick Snyder to be fired. She says she was "frustrated" that she didn't find any other U-M students at that rally, and that there seemed to be no formal organizing presence on campus to address the situation. As news of the Flint situation spread, Van Dam says she heard a lot about efforts to get water into Flint, but still nothing addressing what she describes as a "structural problem."

"This is kind of a controversial issue because it's so wrapped up in structural racism and structural violence," Van Dam says.
 
So Van Dam and her girlfriend Marion Berger founded the Ann Arbor-Flint Solidarity Network, which has held several meetings over the past month. The group's Facebook page has over 200 members, and Van Dam says about 15 to 20 people attend meetings on a regular basis. The group is currently developing educational pamphlets to distribute to U-M students, framing Flint's water crisis as an issue of racism and classism. It also co-sponsored a protest of Snyder's appearance at the U-M Law School.

Although Van Dam is passionate about the Flint situation, her personal involvement in the organization she started may be limited, as she's graduating from U-M this spring. She says a big part of her effort will be recruiting younger organizers, and building partnerships with more established community organizations, to carry on the work in the long term.

"This problem is not going to be fixed in even two years," Van Dam says. "There's going to need to be maintained pressure and maintained effort for like 15 years to come."

What about our water?

In responding to Flint's water woes, it's also natural to ask why Flint cannot be supplied by Ann Arbor's world-class water system, which is roughly 50 miles away (Detroit's is nearly 70). When one considers Van Dam's comments about the division of resources when it comes to class and race, it's hard not to see injustice.

But city of Ann Arbor communications specialist Robert Kellar says that possibility was never discussed for two important reasons. The city of Ann Arbor supplies water to Scio and Ann Arbor townships, but its infrastructure doesn’t stretch much further. At one time the city considered connecting to the Detroit water system, the closest connection point would have been Livonia. To get there, Kellar says, would have cost the city $100 million. What’s more, Ann Arbor just isn’t processing enough water to supply Flint.

“[Flint is] about the same size as us,” Kellar says. “You’d have to double capacity, which is just impossible.”

Another natural question for locals is if there’s anything worth worrying about when it comes to our own water quality. Kellar describes the Flint situation as a "systematic failure from the very bottom to the top" that's unlikely to be replicated in Ann Arbor, where city officials would be "screaming their heads off" if anything went similarly wrong. (Ann Arbor's annual water quality report consistently shows that the city meets or exceeds state and federal regulations.)

But Kellar cautions that we need to be keeping an eye on our infrastructure. He says Ann Arbor's stormwater management system is of particular concern at the moment, as climate change has caused heavier storms that our current infrastructure is poorly equipped to manage. Increased stormwater runoff brings along any pollutants it may pick up on its path, and deposits them into surface drinking water sources–like the Huron River, from which the city of Ann Arbor draws most of its drinking water as well as the water the city provides to Scio and Ann Arbor townships.

Kellar also expresses concern about an underground dioxane plume that has been slowly expanding toward the Huron River. The contamination is the result of more than 20 years of chemical dumping (1966-1986) by the Pall Corp.. One of Ann Arbor's groundwater pumping stations is currently shut down because of the plume, but reportedly only provides a small portion of the community's water. 

"People seem to be afraid to go to taxpayers and say, 'Hey, we need money for roads, or to rebuild roads,'" Kellar says. "And when it comes to things that people don't drive on every day, they just turn on the tap and they take it for granted."

Huron River Watershed Council executive director Laura Rubin says the Flint situation is "symptomatic" of bigger problems that have been building for some time, and that affect all Michigan communities. She traces the problem back to 1995, when then-governor John Engler split the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) in two and created the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). Former governor Jennifer Granholm re-merged the two in 2009, and Snyder split them again with his first executive order in 2011. 

Rubin says splitting the departments is problematic because it separates the scientists in the MDNR from the regulators in the MDEQ–even as the MDEQ has faced budget and staffing cuts. She says those changes have made the MDEQ's approach to permitting less analytical and more focused on simply "getting permits approved and out the door"–as in Flint, where the department's dismissal of residents' complaints about contaminated water is now public knowledge.

"That's the story that we're very concerned about," Rubin says. "When we continue to harp on less government, smaller government, less regulatory controls, these are the kinds of crises and tragedies that come out of that."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate andMetromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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