Improved water quality doesn’t mean Flint’s problems have ended

Ridgway White
Ridgway White. Photo: Cristina Wright

The following is a statement by Ridgway White, president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, regarding recent announcements about the quality of Flint’s drinking water.

At a January 11 town hall meeting, representatives from the city of Flint, state of Michigan and federal government announced significant improvements in levels of lead, chlorine and bacteria in Flint’s drinking water, but they also advised residents to continue using filtered tap water.

Perhaps the biggest, but least surprising, takeaway from the meeting is that the repair work likely to take the longest will be the effort to rebuild public trust. This was made clear by residents who spoke out, crumpled plastic water bottles and clapped rhythmically in unison to display their anger and skepticism.

While the improvement in water quality is good news for Flint, people who live and work here know the city’s problems are far from over. The population-wide exposure to lead that resulted from government cost-cutting measures created long-term challenges that will require long-term funding and interventions to address. These include problems related to residents’ health, the city’s infrastructure and the local economy, all of which have suffered significant damage.

State and — to a lesser extent — federal government already have provided some funding to address harms that have been caused. But in order to repair the many wounds that have been inflicted on Flint, government at all levels will need to make long-term, sustained investments in helping the city and its citizens recover and rise.

Here’s what Flint still needs:

Replacement of damaged infrastructure: Thus far, only 770 of an estimated 29,100 lead service lines have been replaced. Flint needs adequate funding to replace its pipes, as well as expertise and assistance to expedite the process.

Support for long-term health needs: Lead exposure has long-term effects on physical and behavioral health. Because the city’s lead exposure was caused by government, local nonprofits deserve government support to develop and deliver the programs and services residents will need to deal with physical and mental health issues — both now and in the future.

Long-term commitments to invest in early childhood and K-12 education: Because lead exposure affects children’s learning and development, Flint kids will need intensive educational support beginning in early childhood and continuing through high school. Additional funding for both early childhood education programs and Flint Community Schools will be essential to helping children learn and succeed.

Investment in local colleges and universities: Before the water crisis struck, enrollment at local colleges and universities was on the rise. Since the crisis, it has fallen. Government needs to help the institutions that were hurt by the crisis. What’s more, these institutions are leading the way in providing educational support for the youngest children in Flint, addressing public health needs and preparing to educate young people affected by the crisis when they reach college age.

Incentives to create jobs and revitalize the economy: Anyone who is willing to keep a business in Flint or bring new business and employment opportunities to the city should receive tax incentives for doing so.

Funding to eliminate blight: As more residents have walked away from properties that have plummeted in value, blight has become an even bigger problem in Flint. Funding to remove blighted properties and prepare them for productive use would improve safety and quality of life, while also helping to “right size” drinking water infrastructure.

Investments in affordable housing: Development of affordable, quality housing, located near needed services, public transportation and job opportunities, is essential to keeping current residents and attracting new ones.

Support for restoration of the Flint River: The Flint water crisis was not caused by pollution in the Flint River — it was caused by improper treatment of the river water. Nevertheless, the river took a huge hit to its reputation. A restored riverfront in the downtown area would bring new recreational and economic opportunities to the city.

Flint’s water crisis should be a wakeup call that we can no longer afford to ignore the problems of our older industrial cities. We should all now realize that austerity measures are not a solution to long-term economic decline in our cities.

People in Flint and other economically distressed communities deserve government they can trust to put the health, safety and well-being of its citizens first. They also deserve access to opportunity through good education and jobs. All sectors — public, private and nonprofit — should work together to find sustainable ways to create such opportunity.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has committed up to $100 million over five years to help our home community respond to the water crisis. And we’re extremely pleased that 10 other foundations have committed more than $25 million in additional funding.

That sounds like a lot of money — and it is. But the breadth of the lead exposure and the long-term nature of the problems it creates mean that no single sector can provide all of the help Flint needs. That’s why the Mott Foundation stepped up. It’s also why we feel compelled to remind government officials that improved water quality is only a first step on the long road to recovery.

The harm to Flint was caused by a failure of government at all levels. That means all levels of government must continue to focus on what they can do to rebuild public trust and help the city recover and rise.

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