Conspiracy theories flourish in Flint’s toxic water

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter

FLINT, Mich—When Janay Young received a free Brita water filter earlier this month from the state government she immediately called the company’s customer service line to ask if it filtered out lead. (It does, but Young still has her doubts.) And though the city and state promise Flint water is now safe for bathing, Young, a nurse’s assistant, still heats up 10 bottles of water on the stove to give her toddler a bath every day.

“Over the past two years the government has said it’s safe to drink this water. But all along the water was testing high for certain things. And they were lying to us,” Young said. 

Why should she believe them now?

That’s the struggle that government officials face in Flint, now that they are finally responding to the crisis. Residents were ignored after they complained, soon after the city switched its water source in2014 from Detroit’s Lake Huron supply to the Flint River, of odd-tasting and in some cases brown water. Over the past two years, bacteria, a carcinogen called TTHM, and, most dangerous of all, lead, showed up in dangerous levels in the water, even as the government insisted the water was safe. 

Now, officials are distributing filters and bottled water to every resident and have switched the water source back to Lake Huron from the Flint River, while promising to fix the damage to the 700 miles of pipe that make up Flint’s water system. The top official at the state agency in charge of regulating the water resigned, and Gov. Rick Snyder has apologized several times. 

But few in Flint believe anything the government says to them anymore.

“The complete lack of trust is justified and it’s now impeding the efforts of very well intentioned people to intervene and help,” said Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech scientist whose research first showed high levels of lead in Flint water, contradicting the assurances ofstate officials. “We’re getting calls from front-line relief workers who are asking us to talk to residents and tell them that it’s safe to bathe and shower and to use the lead filters that are being distributed to protect them.”

Edwards started a web site with his students to provide the people of Flint with information about the water, since residents’ trust in what government is telling them is “seriously broken.” 

“That’s how low we’ve come, when a volunteer group of students running a website 13 hours away has more trust than all the agencies of the state and federal government combined,” he said.

Robert Bowcock, a water quality expert who works with environmental whistle-blower Erin Brockovich, said Flint residents would show the brown and red water coming out of their taps to government officials who would “come in with a straight face and say this water is safe to drink.”

“They were lied to by their city officials, they were lied to by the county officials, then they were lied to by the state,” Bowcock said. “It would take a saint a year to regain that trust, but I think it can be done.”

Some elected officials whose job it is to earn back residents’ trust themselves feel shaken and angry by the repeated failures that led to the crisis.

SLIDESHOW – Water crisis in Flint, Michigan >>>

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards shows the difference in water quality between Detroit and Flint after testing, giving evidence after more than 270 samples were sent in from Flint that show high levels of lead during a news conference on Sept. 15, 2015 outside of City Hall in downtown Flint, Mich. (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP)

“I’ll tell you right now, my level of trust is just as bad as the residents’,” said Jim Ananich, a state senator who has lived in Flint his whole life. Ananich said that as a Democrat, he’s always believed that government can be a force for good in people’s lives. Now he’s not so sure. 

“[The state’s] philosophy of government has now shaken mine,” Ananich said in the living room of the house he shares with his wife and newly adopted infant son. “It’s hard for me to even come up with words because I’m so angry and so frustrated about what happened.”

In this environment, conspiracy theories have blossomed. Several residents said they believe there is a plot in place to kick out all of the low-income people, re-do the city’s ailing pipes and other infrastructure, and then build developments for college students and wealthier people to live in. (Flint is home to at least five colleges.) In order to speed this plan, the water was tainted on purpose.

Believing that officials intentionally poisoned Flint residents in order to get rid of them is not a stretch for some, given the government’s apparent lack of concern until recently.  

“Are you really trying to help me out or are you trying to run me away?” asked Roscoe Bond, a 59-year-old auto worker at the nearby GM plant and life-long Flint resident.

A Flint City Councilman echoed this theory that developers want to convert Flint from a mostly poor, minority city of 90,000 to a wealthy college town. “What happened when people didn’t leave fast enough? What did they do? They tainted our water,” Councilman Wantwaz Davis said in an interview last week.

Ananich, the state senator, says he understands why some people feel this way, because it’s scarier to confront the sheer indifference of one’s government than to believe in a nefarious land-grab plot. 

“The reason there’s inaction is that people didn’t care enough,” Ananich said. “I’d want to believe something else, too. But it’s become unbelievably clear to me that our community was treated as a throwaway community.”