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Flint's complicated, unresolved water situation

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Coliform bacteria and boil-water alerts, rashes on kids, and water that tastes and smells horrible are some of the side effects associated with Flint’s decision to disconnect from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and switch to the Flint River while it transitions to a new system.

Conditions in Flint grew so terrible that environmental activist Erin Brockovich caught wind of the situation and turned her team’s attention towards Michigan.

The cause of this water crisis? Money.

“The city is under and emergency manager, brought in because of financial problems with the city,” Michigan Radio’s Steve Carmody said. “And when it comes to the water system, that’s one of the areas they thought they needed to address to address their budget problems.”

It turns out that the groups in charge of building the KWA Pipeline – which will run from Lake Huron to Genesee County – approached Flint, asking if the city wanted to join.

“Genesee County’s drain commissioner approached them, said we’d like you to be part of this, and the emergency managers looked at it and figured that they would be able to save money as opposed to staying with the city of Detroit’s water system,” Carmody said.

But there’s a catch: The pipeline might not be finished until mid-2016, and city officials didn't want to enter into a long-term contract with the Detroit system. So Flint officials decided to turn to the Flint River for water in the interim, requiring Flint to treat the water (water from the Detroit system came pre-treated).

“But there’s a difference between how you treat, say water from Lake Huron versus one from an active, ecological source like a river,” Carmody said. “And that’s been part of the problem that the city of Flint has been dealing with.”

Following months of complaints, Robert Bowcock, a water quality expert and one of Erin Brockovich’s long-time cohorts, came to Flint to inspect the city’s water treatment plant and investigate its water quality.

“He has released a list of recommendations, and it’s a relatively long list,” Carmody said. “Things like discontinuing the practice of fluoridation, discontinuing the practice of re-carbonation, and limiting the use of chlorine. Basically what he is saying is the city needs to do less to the water and it might reduce a lot of the problems.”

Last year, for example, the city began dumping more disinfectant into the water supply, following a string of boil-water advisories as a result of coliform contamination. But that treatment resulted in levels of by-products that put the city in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“There are a number of things going on: The water is often discolored, the water has an odd taste, it has an odd smell,” Carmody said. “On one hand they’re told the water is safe, but in some cases they’re told if you’re elderly, if you have small children, if you have an immune deficiency disease, you might want to talk to your doctor before you drink the city’s water.”

The chaos has led to street demonstrations, and many residents have quit drinking their tap water.

City officials this week announced a new, 40-member advisory board meant to communicate information to the public and listen to their concerns. But even that has come with controversy, as some of the water system's most vocal critics complain they were kept off the  committee.

-Lindsey Scullen, Michigan Radio Newsroom