Wednesday afternoon, on the heels of his belated effort to rescue a youth soccer team from a Thai cave with a tiny submarine, Elon Musk promised to fix another seemingly intractable problem. â€œPlease consider this a commitment that I will fund fixing the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination above FDA levels,â€� Musk wrote in a tweet. â€œNo kidding.â€�
You can nitpick pieces of thisâ€”the EPA, not the FDA, determines how many parts per billion of lead is safe in drinking waterâ€”or dismiss it as just another manifestation of Muskâ€™s itinerant savior complex. But know that Flint, at least, welcomes Muskâ€™s help. Just maybe not the version thatâ€™s on offer.
Which, in fairness, continues to evolve. Musk went on to invite residents to tweet their water quality test results to himâ€”no takers yet, it seemsâ€”and said he would send someone over to install a water filter. When a reporter suggested that many Flint houses have safe water already, Musk pivoted to organizing â€œa weekend in Flint to add filtersâ€� to the remaining houses that lack them.
Flint does need help, but filters are one thing it already has plenty of; the city distributes those and water testing kits, for free, at City Hall, and will continue to until Flintâ€™s remaining 14,000 damaged lead and galvanized water service pipes have been fully replaced. And even then, slapping a filter on a kitchen faucet doesnâ€™t address the deep-seated problems still felt by the Flint community four years after its crisis began.
â€œWe had a lot of things damaged as a result of the corrosive water,â€� says Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who offered in a tweet Wednesday to talk through her cityâ€™s â€œspecific needsâ€� with Musk. â€œThis is about reestablishing trust, and rebuilding trust. While filters have been helpful, we still need access to bottled water. People need to see all new pipes going in. Thatâ€™s how youâ€™re going to reestablish trust. And we know thatâ€™s what the residents deserve.â€�
Weaver says her office and Muskâ€™s are still sorting out schedules, but preliminary conversations have been promising.
Itâ€™s worth spending more time talking about those filters, not because they demonstrate Muskâ€™s lack of familiarity with Flintâ€™s current situation, but because they underscore the cityâ€™s deeper challenges.
First, it’s important to note that Flint’s drinking water currently meets federal standards for contaminants for at least a year. “From every objective measure that is out there, Flint’s water is like any other US city with old lead pipes,” says Siddartha Roy, who works on the Virginia Tech research team that helped shed light on the Flint water crisis and has tracked it ever since. That’s still not ideal, obviously, and makes filters a necessity. But Flint residents remain understandably wary.
â€œThere are many people in Flint, I think itâ€™s safe to say, who are never going to trust tap water again under any circumstances,â€� says Benjamin Pauli, a social scientist at Flintâ€™s Kettering University, who has been involved in clean water activism efforts. â€œItâ€™s true that the filters solve a lead problem at point of use, but there are lots of other issues with the filters.â€�
Not all residents know how to install and maintain them, for one. A March survey of 2,000 residents by Flint News showed that 15 percent of respondents didnâ€™t have a filter, while over a third werenâ€™t confident in their ability to change the filter at the appropriate time.
And then there’s what Roy calls the “big trust gap” that makes Flint activists and residents suspicious of even working filters. That’s because they effectively get lead out of the water at a specific tap, but donâ€™t clear away bacteria. For a city that suffered a deadly spike in Legionnairesâ€™ disease in 2016, which has been linked to corrosive water from the Flint River, that causes understandable unease. But Roy notes that the current bacteria found in Flint’s filters has not been shown to be harmful. And anyone who does have concerns can follow a few simple steps to minimize bacterial buildup.
â€œWe do have concerns about filter use, and maintenance, and education around the filters. Everybody is not comfortable with that. Seniors are especially not comfortable with the filters,â€� says Weaver, who notes that the city does have Community Outreach and Resident Education that visits homes to help remediate any filter issues that arise.
Which again should sound familiar to anyone who read Muskâ€™s tweets. What he proposes to accomplish in a barnstorming weekend has been an available resource for years. Better, then, to focus on what Flint really needs.
Bottle It Up
In April, the state of Michigan stopped providing free bottled water to Flint. For a city that still doesn’t trust its taps, the impact can’t be overstated.
â€œThe bottled water is necessary as a short-term intervention for a long-term, structural water system problem,â€� says Pastor Monica Villarreal, who has helped organize community-based efforts to provide clean water resources in Flint. â€œThe water crisis is going to affect this city from generation to generation. And when you look at it from that perspective, two, three, maybe even four years of bottled water is not much.â€�
Community aid stations that were once open daily to distribute bottled water now operate just three times a week. And in the absence of state support, Flint increasingly has to rely on private donors; Weaver says the Detroit Police Department recently brought in a fresh supply.
So if Elon Muskâ€”or anyone elseâ€”wants to help Flint, start with bottled water, which residents will continue to depend on until every last lead and galvanized line gets replaced. â€œBottled water is really the life and death issue,â€� Villarreal says.
And if you want to think bigger, plenty of options remain. â€œOne issue that residents have been raising from very early on is that corrosive water from the river didnâ€™t just damage service lines and water mains, it also damaged the plumbing within peopleâ€™s homes,â€� says Ketteringâ€™s Pauli. â€œAnd not just pipes but fixtures, and also appliances that use water. That would include washing machines, and dishwashers, and hot water heaters.â€�
Scale it up again, to billionaire proportions. â€œWe want to look at the bigger infrastructure issues in the city as well,â€� says Weaver. â€œItâ€™s about reestablishing trust. You have to be confident in the water again.â€� One way to accomplish that? Get more contractors on the ground replacing service lines; get a three-year replacement plan finished by the end of 2018. And then, Weaver says, look at investment in the community. Instead ofâ€”or in addition toâ€”giving people water, how can you help get them back to work?
Those are the types of questions Elon Musk can expect on his call with the mayor. But no matter what comes of it, even expressing interest in the first place has accomplished something invaluable: Reminding people that Flint still exists, and still needs help.
â€œWeâ€™re glad to have the attention. That was one of the fears of the residents, that attention would go away, and we have not been made whole,â€� says Weaver. â€œWe want everybody watching, because what happened to Flint should never happen to any place again.â€�
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