Movement Grows to Stop Shutoffs Over Toxic Water Bills in Flint

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Movement Grows to Stop Shutoffs Over Toxic Water Bills in Flint

As the water crisis persists in Flint, Mich., concerned residents and their national allies are calling for a moratorium on water bills and shutoffs until the water is safe to drink. 

"In 2016, it’s shocking that an entire U.S. city cannot drink its tap water. Now they are shutting off residents for overdue bills. But no one should have to pay for poisoned tap water," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. (Image: Food & Water Watch)

While lead continues to leach into and poison Flint’s tap water, the City of Flint plans to shut off the water service to residents who have not paid for their toxic water. On Thursday, Food & Water Watch and concerned residents called on the city and the governor to stop billing residents for undrinkable water.

In 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager switched Flint’s water source from Detroit’s system to the polluted Flint River in order to cut costs.

Almost immediately, residents noticed changes in the smell, color and taste of their tap water. Bacterial contamination from the polluted river forced the city to issue boil advisories, so the city increased the amount of chlorine it used to kill the pathogens, resulting in high levels of potentially carcinogenic disinfectant byproducts.

Emails released by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder late Wednesday afternoon indicate that state officials were contemptuous of public concerns about Flint’s water, suggesting that the water problems were merely “initial hiccups” and that the violations of federal regulations for disinfectant byproducts were “not like an eminent [sic] threat to public health.” Despite knowing about the problems with Flint’s water, for months, Governor Snyder’s administration and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) continued to tell Flint residents that their water was safe to drink.

For Flint residents, the most immediate and widespread harm has been lead poisoning. At the direction of the DEQ, Flint failed to put in place proper corrosion controls, so lead and other heavy metals leached into Flint's drinking water and poisoned residents. In response to a mass organizing effort spearheaded by the grassroots group Water You Fighting For, with more than 26,000 people signing petitions demanding safe water for Flint, the city and governor returned Flint to safer Detroit water.

Unfortunately, the Flint River water was so corrosive that it permanently damaged the city’s old cast iron pipelines. Lead continues to contaminate the city’s water supply.

After nationwide calls for federal intervention in the Flint water crisis, President Barack Obama has declared a state of emergency in Flint. The city will need as much as $1.5 billion in improvements to reverse the damage done to its water system, while Flint residents face a lifetime of healthcare costs. More than 115,000 people have petitioned President Obama and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to declare a public health emergency in Flint to provide additional federal assistance and relief to residents.

Amid this continuing water crisis, the City of Flint is sending out shut off notices to residents who have not paid their water bills. Residents already cannot drink their tap water and now they could lose water service needed to flush their toilets and wash their hands.

“In 2016, it’s shocking that an entire U.S. city cannot drink its tap water. Now they are shutting off residents for overdue bills. But no one should have to pay for poisoned tap water,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “Today we’re calling on Mayor Karen Weaver, Flint’s Chief Financial Officer Jody Lundquist and City Administrator Natasha Henderson to stop the water shut offs in Flint, restore service where it has been disconnected and to cease billing for Flint water until this tragic situation has been corrected.” 

Flint is not the first city to fall victim to the shortsighted quick fixes of emergency management, particularly in Michigan. Conservative-led austerity measures have stripped communities like Flint, Detroit and Highland Park of democracy, taking control of vital resources like water away from the people and placing them in the hands of emergency managers who then cut corners, shut off water service and pave the way for corporate control.

“We must reverse the austerity measures that have brought Flint to this dire place,” Hauter added, “and we must commit federal funding to upgrade our water infrastructure, so no community suffers without access to safe, clean, affordable water.”

Mary Grant

Mary Grant is the Public Water for All Campaign Director. She oversees campaigns to support universal access to safe water in the United States by promoting responsible and affordable public provision of water and sewer service.

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