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Scripps News Investigation: A decade, a contempt order, and $100M later, 'Flint is not fixed'

Ten years into the water crisis, Scripps News Investigates found hundreds of homes still with lead pipes, over a thousand unchecked — and nearly all funds spent.
Flint Michigan water tower
Posted at 9:51 PM, Apr 25, 2024

A cost-saving decision 10 years ago created one of the more shocking public health scandals in the country — killing a dozen residents and exposing 100,000 others in Flint, Michigan, to poisonous water contaminated with lead — all while city and state officials claimed the water was safe.

When the errors were exposed more than a year later, city and state officials vowed to clean up the mess and replace the corroding pipes poisoning residents. But neither time nor tens of millions of dollars in funding — not even orders by a federal judge — have brought an end to this devastating chapter in Flint.

“Everybody's out there acting like Flint's fixed, and Flint is not fixed,” Flint resident Melissa Mays told Scripps News.

Scripps News has discovered dangerous lead pipes are still pumping water into at least 200 addresses, with potentially more to be found. Over 1,000 houses still have not yet been inspected, and when they will be is anyone’s guess: Work on the project has ceased since December, 2023.

Mays and other residents live in constant fear. She said officials dismiss their fear as trauma from the early days when water coming from the taps was brown and flush with toxins.

It's not trauma, she said — it's knowledge.

“We don't trust the water because we know it's coming through bad pipes,” said Mays.

Her lack of trust is understandable.

On April 25, 2014 the State of Michigan and the City of Flint switched the city’s water source to the highly corrosive Flint River without properly treating it. The move meant to save money soon corroded the city’s pipes, leaching lead into the drinking water.

Residents complained of brown, odorous water flowing through their taps and reported getting sick as officials reassured them that their water was safe. It took 18 months for officials to reverse course and begin using the original water source, but only after officials finally admitted it was poisonous, with alarmingly high levels of lead found in children.

Mays and her family were among those who drank Flint’s contaminated water before the water crisis was uncovered. Thinking she was doing right by her kids, she gave them tap water instead of sugary drinks and cooked at home.

“I had no idea that every time I handed them their favorite spaghetti, when I boiled it down, it was heavy metal spaghetti,” she said.

Historic settlement, deadlines missed

Mays and other residents, backed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the ACLU, won a historic settlement in 2017, when the city and state agreed to remove the public health threat lurking underground in the damaged lead and galvanized steel water pipes that feed drinking water into residents’ homes by 2020.

That didn’t happen.

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A Scripps News investigation in 2023 showed thousands of residents likely still needed their service lines inspected, with the city missing deadline after deadline to complete the job.

A federal judge cited the investigation when he found the city in contempt last month. We found in 2023 the Environmental Protection Agency and state officials warned it wasn’t safe for any resident to drink the water in Flint without special filters until every last dangerous line was replaced.

Last spring, an exclusive Scripps News analysis of progress reports the city submitted in the court case showed that the pace of work slowed to a crawl after the current mayor took office in 2019.

When presented with our findings, Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley couldn’t say how many pipes were left to inspect and replace. He told Scripps News the project was "more than 90% complete" — a claim he had previously made years earlier.

He said the pandemic and poor records from the previous administration accounted for delays, but said the project was a priority.

“We're rounding out this project that we're scheduled to be able to complete this very, very soon,” he said at the time.

Eleven months later, a federal judge wrote in his contempt order that the city’s failure to complete the job was causing hardships to Flint residents. Though plaintiffs had asked, the judge declined to hold Mayor Neeley himself in contempt. Neeley is now running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

We checked back with the city after the March contempt order, and were told the project was near completion with some two dozen homes remaining.

“Under the settlement agreement, there are approximately 30 addresses requiring lead service line excavation remaining.”

Scripps News obtained state and city records through a public records request earlier this month showing officials know of at least 200 homes with lead service lines. We were the first to tell some residents their drinking water was running through lead pipes.

We found other residents who say they have been waiting for years to get the city to inspect their pipes. Our analysis of city and state records shows more than 1,000 addresses still haven’t been inspected by the city.

That includes Jeff Raupp’s home, where he still keeps a flier hanging on his refrigerator that he says he got from contractors back in 2020.

He showed us the latest copy of a consent form, which the city requires residents to sign before the city can do the work. He said he first signed it back in 2018, when volunteers came to his door.

“I’ve submitted this document at least three or four times,” Raupp said. He said that included dropping it off in person and emailing it.

Since Mayor Neeley took office, the city has required residents to sign multiple consent forms over the years. A city spokesperson did not answer Scripps News questions of why that is, but wrote that “The city is confident in this record of consent.”

Raupp said he’s called the city’s dedicated phone line for the project at least a dozen times.

“They’ve never called me back,” he said. “Not once.”

Last spring, Scripps News reported ongoing problems with the phone line. The city told Scripps News it would work with its contractor to fix the issues; by July, the contractor had hired an outside phone service to log calls.

A month later, a city council member tested the phone system under new management when she called on behalf of a resident. Earlier this month at a city council meeting, Councilwoman Candice Mushatt provided an update: “I’m still waiting for a call back and I specifically stated I was a councilperson.”

It’s unclear who is monitoring the calls. Scripps News discovered the city’s contract with Rowe Professional Services, which hired the phone service, expired in December. Neither Rowe nor the city responded to questions. When we tried calling the line ourselves recently, a woman answered the phone and took a message, but could not provide additional information.

At the same city council meeting, multiple members expressed frustration that they were in the dark on where things really stood with the project, and how many addresses still needed to be checked and service lines replaced.

“We got the city attorney giving out numbers ... We got the [the city’s contractor] last week giving us another number. When are we going to get the right — the truthful — answer on where we are with pipe replacement?” said Flint City Councilmember Dennis Pfeiffer.

Over the course of three weeks, Scripps News repeatedly asked by email to schedule an interview with Mayor Neeley, but our requests were denied.

When Scripps News attempted to join local media for an in-person press conference with the mayor, our reporters were barred from entering his office.

After continuing to press for answers, city spokesperson Caitie O’Neill gave us a reason for the difference between the city's statement of 30 homes requiring service, versus our finding of more than 1,000. Our numbers included residents who did not consent or never responded to scheduling attempts for workers to enter their property, she said, and those homes fall outside the terms of the settlement agreement.

But, she said the city is committed to completing work even at these homes, writing “the city continues to work above and beyond the terms of the settlement agreement to get the lead out at every address.”

We found the city performed nearly 1,000 inspections in November and December, right before work ground to a halt. The city told Scripps News the months of January through April do not fall within construction season, even though during our visit in mid-April, we saw construction crews working on city infrastructure projects downtown.

Scripps News obtained state financial documents showing the more than $100 million in federal and state funds set aside for the project was nearly exhausted. Just $1.5 million remained.

Now, the city says it’s money that’s keeping them from completing the job. The city says it’s trying to secure more funding through the state.

Meanwhile, residents continue to wait.

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Faded promises

Each time Jeff Raupp walks out the door, he’s confronted with reminders of his ongoing wait to get his water pipes inspected.

Flags marking water and gas lines are starting to rust, and spray paint on his curb is starting to fade. He says they were placed there several months ago — the last time workers came to his home.

Through a public records request, the city released its own database tracking its work to Scripps News in mid-April. It showed a contractor — the same one listed on Raupp's flier — was assigned to his address back in 2019. But his inspection is still marked as “pending."

We also found his address on a list the city reported to the court in 2022 as being non-responsive, despite his claim of repeatedly handing in consent forms and calling the city, with no response.

Last week, Scripps News asked the city about Raupp’s case. Wednesday, a spokesperson wrote that according to City of Flint records, Raupp’s service line is “copper to copper and no excavation is needed.” She did not respond to questions about which records the city is relying on.

Back in 2018, researchers used historical maps with handwritten notes and index cards provided by the City of Flint to help the city predict where the dangerous pipes were. But they found that “discrepancies were substantial.” Hundreds of homes where city records indicated copper pipes were actually discovered to have lead or galvanized steel pipes upon excavation.

That’s why the federal judge in the case mandated every active service line be dug up and inspected, at no cost to residents.

In spite of all of this, the city had this to say Wednesday:

“The NRDC/Concerned Pastors settlement agreement did not allow the City to use records that were generated before the Flint Water Crisis occurred. This resulted in a significant waste of time and money as the City was required to conduct unnecessary excavations.”

Ongoing water compliance concerns

Though Flint’s water has stayed below the federal action level at 15 parts per billion for lead since 2016, testing by federal and state guidelines now shows levels trending in the wrong direction. After a low of 3 ppb in 2021, the most recent testing cycle reported last December shows it has increased to 10 ppb.

That level may not keep Flint in the clear: The EPA is expected to lower its action level to 10 ppb later this year. Lead is known to cause learning delays and behavioral issues, and the Centers for Disease Control is among those to say there is "no safe blood level" for lead in young children.

Troubles for Flint continue to mount as the city now faces an administrative consent order. The City of Flint and the State of Michigan have been quiet on the issue as they undergo legal negotiations to agree on a plan to get Flint’s water system into compliance. But, Scripps News obtained a December letter from the state of Michigan notifying the city of violations of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act. The state found “significant deficiencies” relating to its water system’s finances, management and operations, and distribution system. “Significant deficiencies represent an immediate health risk to consumers of water,” the letter explains.

The city and state told Scripps News Flint’s water quality meets all state and federal standards.

Pushing the nation, lagging behind

Though trust in the city’s water and its government hasn’t much changed in a decade, the number of residents who call Flint home has. One-fifth of the population – 20,000 people – is now gone.

Jeff Raupp would also like to leave. But he feels held hostage here until what lurks beneath his lawn is truly uncovered.

“There’s a judge that found the city in contempt here in the last couple of weeks, so if they can ignore a judge and a court, ducking my phone calls and ignoring me, I guess, isn’t that difficult,” Raupp said.

In the last decade, state and federal laws were changed after residents in Flint fought to be heard. The nation listened. Now, other cities are removing their dangerous service lines. Some cities have already completed the job.

But people in Flint still feel unheard.

Though Melissa Mays says she’s tired of living in fear, she and her family aren’t giving up.

“As proud as I am of my sons, there’s always the question of what they could have been ... if they didn’t get poisoned by our government.”

“My kids are Flint kids and they’re fighters."

Investigative Photojournalist Colin McIntyre contributed to this report.

We'll be following this story. Email Investigative Producer Carrie.Cochran@Scripps.com, Investigative Data Reporter Amy.Fan@Scripps.com and Investigative Correspondent Catie.Beck@Scripps.com with questions or tips.