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How the people of Flint, Mich., ended up with contaminated drinking water

Caitlin Dickson
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Gov. Rick Snyder apologized to the residents of Flint, Mich., Tuesday evening for the failure in state, local and federal leadership resulting in a water contamination crisis that has consumed the city for nearly two years.

“To you, the people of Flint, I say tonight as I have before, I am sorry and I will fix it,” Snyder said in his annual State of the State address, calling on state lawmakers to approve $28 million in funds to help replace water faucets in city schools and daycare centers, do diagnostic tests and treat children who may have been exposed to lead and other hazardous chemicals, and study the city’s piping system.

SLIDESHOW – Water crisis in Flint, Michigan >>>

Snyder’s apology came amid calls for his resignation over what critics charge has been a delayed and neglectful response to the city’s water crisis. Flint residents began complaining about the taste, odor and color of their tap water as well as side effects like rashes and hair loss within a month after the city switched its drinking water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River in April 2014. But it wasn’t until October 2015 — after reports revealed an increase in lead-in-blood levels among Flint residents and children in particular — that Snyder finally ordered Flint to stop using the river water and return to Detroit’s supply.

AP Interactive: The Flint Water Crisis

Over the past few weeks, the local crisis has continued to snowball into a national issue, with Snyder declaring a state of emergency and deploying the Michigan National Guard to distribute water bottles and filters, as federal officials launched an investigation. Over the weekend President Obama signed an emergency declaration and ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate in bringing federal aide to Flint.

Flint — and Snyder — have even become talking points on the presidential campaign trail. During Sunday’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton admonished Snyder, accusing him of deliberately ignoring the basic needs of an already disadvantaged community.

“We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care,” Clinton said. “He had a request for help that he had basically stonewalled. I’ll tell you what — if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action.”

Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders also commented on the Flint water crisis, saying Snyder should resign.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver — who met with President Obama Tuesday — joined Hillary for America’s national political director on a phone call with reporters earlier in the day to discuss Clinton’s response to the water crisis and Flint’s needs going forward.

“People are angry, they’re scared, they’re confused, they need support. We need more than just water and filters coming in,” Weaver said. “What are we going to do for these kids and families that have been impacted?”

Weaver said she was grateful to Clinton for speaking out about Flint during Sunday’s debate, and especially for questioning how this situation would have played out in a city with different demographics than Flint, a predominately black community with more than 40 percent of its population living below the poverty line. 

“This is also a class issue,” Weaver said. “Water is a basic right; it’s a social issue.”

As more than 1,000 people protested outside the state Capitol, Snyder promised that on Wednesday he would release all  his emails regarding Flint from 2014 and 2015 — apparently in an effort to answer growing questions about what exactly he knew about the water situation and when.

Below is a timeline of what we know so far.

April 16, 2013: State-appointed emergency manager Ed Kurtz signs an agreement passed by the Flint City Council to join the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), a new pipeline project that would supply Flint with tap water from Lake Huron. 

April 2014: Flint moves water supply from Detroit to Flint River.

Flint previously purchased its drinking water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. And despite the fact that the KWA pipeline would not be complete for about three more years, in April 2014 Flint severs ties with the DWSD and begins supplying its residents with water from the Flint River. Flint residents soon begin to complain about cost and quality of water.

The top of a water tower at the Flint Water Plant is seen in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. (Rebecca Cook/REUTERS)
The top of a water tower at the Flint Water Plant is seen in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. (Rebecca Cook/REUTERS)

June 12, 2014: Flint water treatment plant announces plan to add more lime to the river water in response to customer complaints. Residents begin complaining about the color, odor and taste of their costly tap water not long after the city switches its drinking water supply to the Flint River.

“It stinks. It’s nasty, and we shouldn’t even be drinking it,” Flint resident Rev. Barbara Bettis says at a City Council meeting. 

Then-Mayor Dayne Walling rebuffs residents’ concerns about the river water, insisting, “It’s a quality, safe product. I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water.”

August-September 2014: Flint issues three separate water-boil advisories to different parts of the city within 22 days after water samples repeatedly test positive for total coliform bacteria. 

Oct.13, 2014: General Motors announces it will stop using river water at its Flint engine plant because of concerns about potential corrosion caused by the water’s high chloride levels. 

Feb. 3 2015: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announces $2 million in state funding to help improve Flint’s water system. 

Feb. 17, 2015: Mayor Dayne Walling appoints 40 city officials, business owners and community organizers to a newly formed water advisory committee

March 2015: Flint dedicates $2.24 million to improve water supply as Flint officials insist water quality has improved and meets safety standards. 

September 2015: Researchers from Virginia Tech release findings of increased lead-in-blood levels of Flint residents over the past two years. 

Sept. 24, 2015: Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, a pediatrician at Hurley Children’s Hospital and head of the pediatric residency program at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine, releases a review of blood test results showing elevated levels of lead in Flint children coinciding with the switch to Flint River water.

Sept. 29, 2015: Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledges for the first time that Flint’s water has a lead problem

Flint resident Lorraine Jones pours canned water into a pot in preparation for boiling to cook on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. (Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)
Flint resident Lorraine Jones pours canned water into a pot in preparation for boiling to cook on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. (Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)

Oct. 2, 2015: Snyder says the state will spend $1 million on water filters and testing of water in Flint public schools.

Oct. 8, 2015: Snyder says Flint should go back to getting its water from Detroit. 

Oct. 16, 2015: State legislature approves $9.3 million for Flint: $6 million of it is meant to help get Flint back on the Detroit water supply until KWA is ready, and the rest to fund water filters, testing and inspections.

Nov. 3, 2015: Mayor Dayne Walling loses reelection amid the water scandal. New Mayor Karen Weaver is elected. 

Nov. 13, 2015: A class-action lawsuit accuses 14 officials (including Gov. Snyder and former Mayor Walling) of supplying Flint residents with “dangerous, unsafe, and ... inadequately treated” water as a means of saving money. 

“For more than 18 months, state and local government officials ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed [users] to extreme toxicity,” reads part of the suit.

Nov. 16, 2015: The ACLU of Michigan, the National Resource Defense Council, Concerned Pastors for Social Action and Flint resident Melissa Mays file notice of intent to sue the city and state over lead in the drinking water.

Dec. 29, 2015: Dan Wyant resigns as director of state Department of Environmental Quality and issues an apology to Flint residents.

Jan. 5. 2016: Federal officials announce investigation of the Flint water crisis.

The same day, Gov. Snyder declares a state of emergency. 

Jan. 12, 2016: Michigan National Guard is deployed to Flint to distribute filters and water bottles. Snyder asks for federal assistance.

A forklift driver moves a pallet of water in a warehouse for residents of Flint, Michigan. (Carlos Osorio/AP Photo)
A forklift driver moves a pallet of water in a warehouse for residents of Flint, Michigan. (Carlos Osorio/AP Photo)

Jan. 13, 2016: Michigan health officials report jump in cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County, which includes Flint, over past two years.

Jan. 16, 2016: President Obama signs emergency declaration, orders FEMA and DHS to coordinate on federal aid for Flint. 

Jan. 17, 2016: During the Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton says, “I spent a lot of time last week being outraged by what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, and I think every single American should be outraged.”

Bernie Sanders also comments on the Flint water crisis, saying Snyder should resign.

Jan. 18, 2016: More National Guard troops are sent to Flint. 

That same day, Snyder responds to Clinton’s comments from the debate, accusing her of politicizing the crisis. “We’re going to keep working on putting solutions in place,” Snyder told the Detroit News after speaking at an event in Flint for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “And what I would say is politicizing the issue doesn’t help matters. Let’s focus in on the solution and how to deal with the damage that was done and help the citizens of Flint and make Flint a stronger community.”

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.; and Congressman Dan Kildee, D-Mich. urge Snyder to commit state resources to reimburse Flint residents for their water bills, repair the damaged water system and create a Future Fund for kids exposed to lead poisoning from water. 

Jan. 19, 2016: Two new class-action lawsuits are filed against Gov. Rick Snyder, former Flint Emergency Managers Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Genesee County and other government officials.

The latest two, one filed in Genesee County Circuit Court and the other in the Court of Claims, come in addition to the suit already filed in federal court.

That evening Snyder apologizes to the people of Flint and promises to fix the damage caused by water contamination.