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Michigan still dealing with fallout from Flint water crisis 9 years later; Plus new water worries

Michigan still dealing with fallout from Flint water crisis 9 years later, new water worries
Michigan still dealing with fallout from Flint water crisis 9 years later, new water worries 04:24

FLINT, Mich. (CBS DETROIT) - As water infrastructure across the country grows older, residents and leaders in Flint say what happened to them should be a lesson to all.

April 25, 2023, marks nine years since the Flint water crisis began. Some residents said they still feel like they are living in a science experiment.

"We run the cold water and it smells like chemicals; run the hot water and it smells like sometimes dirty feet," said Melissa Mays, the operations manager for "Flint Rising," an organization helping those impacted after Flint's water was contaminated with lead in 2014. 

The ramifications are still unfolding today. This week, a judge approved the $626 million civil settlement, the largest in Michigan's history. 

While money is nice, what residents really want is lasting change. 

According to the latest state testing, current lead levels in Flint's water have increased since the beginning of 2021, but have remained below federal action levels for the past six and a half years.

Flint invested millions of dollars in improving its water infrastructure, including a new chemical feed building, reservoir renovations, and the addition of a secondary water pipeline for emergencies. 

Despite what the lead levels show, Flint Water Plant supervisor Scott Dungee said many still don't trust the water. Even his own family is weary.

"I have an uncle to this day still doesn't bathe in the water, and I've tried my best. He says, 'Scotty, I don't trust it.' I say 'Uncle Pete, I'm telling you, I can show you the records, and you have all new copper lines feeding your house,'" said Dungee. "I've tested his water and everything's great. He's still a little slow to come around. But someday, I hope he will."

Flint's m Mayor Sheldon Neeley said it will take time and work to earn back their trust.

"In this community, when you think about kids of the age six and under have never drunk from their tap," Neeley said. 

Flint residents say a big step towards trusting their tap would be the replacement of all lead service lines, a requirement the city was given in a 2017 settlement. 

Kelly Vaughen: "It has been six years since the service lines started to be replaced, the deadline pushed multiple times. When will this work finally be completed?"

Neeley: "It's less than 3% to complete that process. But the 3% that's remaining, the majority of those are the ones that have not given us consent to go on their property to replace those lines."

A federal judge has given Flint until august first to complete the work. Mays said the ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by flint advocacy groups and residents.

"I would like to turn on my tap and not worry if it's going to make us sicker, if it's going to continue to destroy the plumbing in our house, if something else is going to fall apart including our kids or us," said Mays. 

She said she and many of her neighbors still only drink bottled water and use bottled water to brush their teeth, water their plants, and give to their pets. 

As the ripple effects of the Flint water crisis continue, Michigan is dealing with a whole new slew of problems managing one of the world's largest sources of fresh water.

A growing problem that's costing billions of dollars and costing lives is flooding. Brandon Wong is the CEO and Co-founder of Hyfi, which created a wireless solar-powered sensor that uses sonar to monitor water levels.

"Once that's installed it can start sending out the data," said Wong. 

The data can be sent over the cellular network to city leaders and first responders, as well as home and business owners. Wong said the devices can save money and time, keeping people from having to out and check water levels. 

The information is also useful for recreators who want to boat or kayak. Wong said not only will the data prevent emergencies it will also help with long-term planning. 

"How do you plan your infrastructure, how do you design it? How do you size it up when you're getting more frequent storms, more intense storms, what should that look like."

Other water worries come from what damage can be done inside our bodies, like damage from PFAS, widely used, long-lasting, chemicals sometimes found in water.

"They are called 'forever chemicals,'" said Qi Hua Fan, a professor at Michigan State University.

He said PFAS can do lasting damage to your body and are often found in high concentrations in industrial wastewater. 

In his lab, they are developing ways to trap and destroy PFAS with plasma technology. Gas is pumped into wastewater creating bubbles. Fan said the bubbles are then carried the PFAs up into the "plasma region" of the device.

"Once the bubble are there, PFAs and the bubble will be destroyed by the plasma," he said. 

He said the prototypes use standard industry components, are cost-effective, and only use about as much electricity as a lightbulb

Fan's lab also developed carbon technology to trap PFAS in large volumes of water, with low levels of PFAS, like in ground or drinking water. He said their technologies are scalable and they are looking for industrial companies to partner with. 

Fan said PFAS are a global problem, but particularly important for Michigan and the Great Lakes region.

Back in Flint, Mays said her family and others are dealing with the physical and mental health impacts of the crisis. But nine years in, they're still standing, and they have no plans on backing down.

"They made the decisions to switch our water and to not treat it, and to cover it up and hide it from people. Innocent people died. Their job is to fix it and make our lives, our homes and our bodies right," she said.

There is one thing everyone in Flint can all agree on: what happened in their town should be a warning to all others with ailing water infrastructure. 

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