Can a community water lab restore trust in Flint?

Can a community water lab restore trust in Flint?

The Mckenzie Patrice-Croom Water Lab, which opened to the public last year, wants to change the relationship between people and water in Flint.

Mckenzie Patrice-Croom was born in Flint, Michigan on January 31, 2017, right in the middle of the Flint water crisis. She had epilepsy and was regularly in and out of the hospital. And because of the water crisis, her parents faced challenges bathing her, making her formula, and mixing her medicines. On June 19, 2018, after only eighteen months of life, McKenzie died. Her grandfather, Michael Harris, believes the water crisis contributed to Mckenzie’s death. “She passed away after living a wonderful year on this planet, but it was a painful year,” Harris said. “She was just one of the many children who’ve been affected by the water in this community.”

The story is familiar by now: In April 2014, to save money, Flint began sourcing its drinking water from the Flint River. (Previously, it had been hooked into the city of Detroit, which gets its water from Lake Huron.) The river water was highly corrosive and reacted with Flint’s pipes, pumping lead into homes and effectively poisoning the city. People complained of smelly, dark, bad-tasting water. Doctors found elevated lead levels in kids. Finally, in 2015, after almost a year and a half, the city switched back to the Detroit system. But that wasn’t the end. As Anna Clark reported last month, even now, “many of the most important reforms at the center of the city’s water crisis remain undone.”

Harris, a lifelong Flint resident, refers to himself as a “Flintstone at heart.” Watching the city he loves harm his grandchild was painful, he told me. He wanted to do something to honor the memory of his granddaughter while also serving the children and families still living in the city, where many people have lost faith in the institutions meant to protect them. So he and several others in the community collaborated to launch the Mckenzie Patrice-Croom Water Lab, which provides free water testing for Flint residents.

Flint Water Lab - 1
Dominique Strong, community outreach coordinator at the Flint Community Lab. Photo by Nina Ignaczak

The lab, which bills itself as “the first community-based laboratory of its kind in the world,” aims to test about half of Flint’s households over the next three years, according to Jill Ryan, executive director of Freshwater Futures, a nonprofit that is collaborating with Harris. The lab is run by recent University of Michigan-Flint graduate Alexandria Schipansky and staffed by Flint residents Daryl Sparks, who works as a student coordinator, and Levi Castonguay, a laboratory assistant. Local middle school and high school students receive science education in the lab, and high school and college students receive job training and internship credit.

The project is more than just a water testing lab, Harris told me. It’s a place for Flint residents to begin to rebuild trust in their community. “Even now, after all this time, there’s really no place for us to really go. You’ve gotta call these government entities who may or may not show up,” he said. “But now you’ve got a center, right in the neighborhood, that you can walk to, and we’ll make sure you know exactly what’s happening with your water. That is extremely empowering for us.”

Flint residents don’t have a lot of reasons to trust their government, which caused the water crisis in 2014 and failed to manage it effectively. Work to replace lead lines in the city is still not complete, and government-led efforts to reassure city residents of the safety of their water through testing are notoriously spotty and unreliable. Tap water in Flint’s school buildings remains undrinkable, and the city has repeatedly failed to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act by not collecting enough valid water samples.

It’s not just the government. Many celebrities and corporations donated money or other resources, like bottled water, but most Flint residents I talked to also don’t believe an outside savior is the answer to their problems. (One example is Elon Musk, who infamously tweeted that he would help pay for “fixing” any house with elevated lead levels in the city. That didn’t happen. Musk did eventually pay for water filtration stations in the city’s schools, but point-of-use filters amounted to little more than a bandaid.) Disaster relief is no substitute for effective, functioning public infrastructure.

In January, a federal judge granted preliminary approval for a $641 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit against the State of Michigan, providing for cash payments to affected residents. The payments focus on benefiting those who were minors while exposed to the tainted water. Adults will need to provide proof of injury through bone scans, which some have argued is an unnecessary burden to place on people who have already suffered so much. The amount of the payments, spread over one hundred thousand people, is yet to be determined, but will “never be enough to compensate (residents) for what happened,” according to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Only now, nearly seven years since the switch to the Flint River, are government officials being held accountable. In January, the Michigan attorney general’s office brought criminal charges ranging from willful neglect to involuntary manslaughter against state and city elected officials who were in power at the time—including former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, his state Public Health Director Nicholas Lyon, and six others.

Harris is glad some people are finally being held accountable, but he says it’s inadequate and disproportionate to the amount of suffering that government decisions brought to the crisis. “You’re talking about people who were tone deaf—and I’m using a light word—who could care less about us in this community. Their names are infamous in this community. It doesn’t solve the problem, but doggone it, it feels like justice. I’m not saying that Snyder was charged with what I think he should have been charged with, but at least he was charged, and to see that mugshot, to see him go through an ounce of the pound of pain we’ve had, is some kind of solace.”

Most people in Flint still don’t drink the water, Harris said, despite the city having been in compliance with federal and state drinking water standards since July of 2016.  “I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said. “But how do you bring that trust back? Do you have lead in your water? Do you have lead in your home? How do you know?”

Harris wanted to find a solution, a way to rebuild a sense of confidence so that Flint residents could regain their sense of agency and begin rebuilding their community. And he knew that the community—not the government or out-of-state billionaires like Musk—was where he needed to begin. “We’re strong and resilient people,” he said. “And instead of trying to make excuses about what’s happening, we wanted to make solutions happen for young people here.”

The idea for a community water lab came out of a water visioning session with Flint youth at the Flint Development Center in 2018, led by the nonprofit Freshwater Future. “I noticed that they had this huge water filtration system on the wall, and no one was using water out of that. And the kids were really upset if there wasn’t a lot of bottled water available,” Freshwater Future Executive Director Jill Ryan said. “And so I started having these conversations with the kids and the adults about, ‘Do you ever think you’ll use this water again?’ And [they said], ‘No, no, this is poison.’”

Ryan, Michael Harris, and others began surveying and speaking with community members about their confidence in the Flint water system. They found that eighty-six percent of surveyed residents did not feel their home tap water was safe to drink, and sixty-seven percent would not drink it even with a filter. Nearly a third of surveyed residents did not have a filter in their home. “One of the problems was nobody trusted any of the labs, because they’re all affiliated with the state,” Ryan told me. “And they told us that to move this trust issue forward, we have to bring in the youth.”

So, in 2018, Freshwater Future and the Flint Development Center launched a pilot community water lab. They trained fifteen students between the ages of fifteen and eighteen to collect water samples properly, and sent them into the community. A lab at the University of Michigan analyzed the samples and provided residents with their results, as well as information about what happened in Flint and how to install, maintain and use filters. “We would make sure everybody had filters. Some people didn’t have faucets that would accept filters, so we even provided faucets,” Ryan said. “If people were allowing us into their homes, we wanted to make sure they had what they needed.”

Daryl Sparks, student coordinator at the Flint Community Lab. Photo by Nina Ignaczak

The pilot lab collected samples from around one hundred and fifty households, which represent a tiny fraction of the more than forty thousand households in the city. The action level for lead—meaning the threshold at which a remediation response is required—under Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule is fifteen ppb (parts per billion). That number will drop to twelve ppb in 2025, which will make it the nation’s most stringest standard. Most samples collected by the community water lab measured less than one ppb, well below the action level threshold. (Public health experts caution that no amount of lead is safe to consume.)

“People have been left mentally and emotionally at a standstill with this crisis,” said Daryl Sparks, who serves as the lab’s student coordinator. “We’re seeing something that feels like progress. So to come into these homes and see the look on people’s faces when you’re telling them that, ‘oh, here’s what we are, here’s what we’re gonna do.’ They instantly light up, they feel better. They’re happy to just see that this is happening. And they love to see that it’s coming from young people from their own community.”

When the pilot ended, the students presented their findings to the community during a hot dog roast at the Flint Development Center, and brought participants in to talk to them about their results. “We had one mom come in…She had four little kids with her, and you could tell she didn’t quite trust us,” Ryan told me. “And unfortunately she had a relatively high test result, and she didn’t have a filter. She had a little boy that had the rashes that come with that water on his face, and she was so upset and crying.”

The students were able to demonstrate that water filters made a difference as well as help people acquire and use the filters. Like in the case of the skeptical woman with four children: “So we went out that day and bought her a bunch of bottled water and a filter and made sure she had access to the services that are available,” Ryan said. “It’s not that services weren’t available in Flint, it’s just that people didn’t know about it or trust it.”

People continued to ask for testing, Ryan said. So she and Harris sat down again with community leaders to talk about a long-term solution. “And what we decided would be better than doing it with an outside lab would be to build one where the community would own it, and the community would run it,” Ryan said. Ryan secured $750,000 in funding from donors, including the University of Michigan, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and The Nalgene Water Fund, to launch the Mckenzie Patrice-Croom Community Water Lab in late 2020.

The project’s primary goal is to rebuild individual residents’ trust in their water. That will likely involve helping those residents whose tests come back with higher results figure out where the lead is coming from—whether from the service line or from an interior line or fixture—and helping them mitigate the problem. “The whole goal [is that] if there is lead in those homes, then we want to be able to help them remediate that,” Ryan told me. “It’s really important to be able to ensure for residents that their water is safe, and if it’s not, to help them find resources and tools, so they can fix it.”

Things have gotten off to a slow start, thanks in part to the pandemic. Since launching in December, the lab has processed only twenty-two samples, and it’s uncovered nothing concerning yet—so far results have fallen between 0.2 and 0.7 ppb. In recent weeks testing and outreach have been ramping up, and Ryan expects the volume to pick up moving into spring.

The Flint community lab project has lofty goals, which exceed the mandate of a traditional water lab. Michigan water expert and consultant Elin Betanzo, founder of Safe Water Engineering LLC, pointed out that in addition to being a proficient lab, the project plans to exist as a social support service, interpreting results for individuals and the community, connecting clients with resources and services, and training future water professionals in the community. It’s a tall order.

(L to R) Dominique Strong, community outreach coordinator; Alexandria Schipansky, principal chemist; Levi Castonguay, laboratory assistant; Daryl Sparks, student coordinator. Photo by Nina Ignaczak

“Water labs are not typically hired to turn data into information, and they’re not typically expected to design a sampling program to determine if there’s a water quality problem,” Betanzo noted. “For a community lab to build trust, those are big things I would want the community lab to be capable of doing. Data without design and interpretation isn’t very useful, but that means that the community lab should have a lot more expertise than a standard commercial lab whose job is just to pump out results. It’s a much heavier lift.”

An immediate challenge to the project’s goal of building trust is that the lab is not yet certified by the state or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Certification requires the lab to process a certain number of audited proficiency samples, among other requirements. For Betanzo, acquiring basic certification is absolutely critical for establishing trust. “They need to have the proper expertise of a lab—making sure they’re certified for the drinking water analytical methods they are offering,” she told me. “A lab can turn out a lot of data and say that data were produced using certified methods, but if the sampling program isn’t designed in a scientifically valid way, then results can be misused.”

Because the primary goal of the lab is to build trust, Ryan said the primary metric of success will be the number of residents who, before coming to the lab, did not feel comfortable drinking their own water, and, after having had their interaction with the lab, do feel comfortable. “If a family can’t use the running water in their home, it’s a great harm,” Ryan said. “We really want to try to remove that harm for people, but we know that it’s a process.”

Reporting for this story was funded in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. 

Correction 2/23/20: A previous version of this article stated that the current lead action level in Michigan is 12 ppb. It is currently 15 ppb. It doesn’t drop to 12 ppb until 2025.

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a contributing editor for Detour Detroit. She is the founder and executive editor of Planet Detroit, a digital media startup that tells Detroit’s environmental stories while building a community of engaged readers who are informed and empowered to act personally and publicly. She is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes, edits and produces stories about the environment, place and identity. Her recent work has been published by Detour Detroit, Belt Magazine, HuffPost, Detroit Free Press, WDET, Crains Detroit Business, Business Insider, Curbed Detroit and Model D. Prior to her career in journalism, she worked in urban planning in the local government and nonprofit sectors. She has a Master of Science in Natural Resource Ecology and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @ninaignaczak