More than 8,000 people in Flint have been told they could lose both their water supply and even their homes, if they continue to refuse to pay bills for polluted water provided by the Michigan city.
The residents have been sent water shutoff notices and threats that the city will take financial possession of their homes until they pay their water bills — or forever if they cannot make payments on looming deadlines. The city says the threat of taking financial control of property, known as a tax lien, is necessary because it is not bringing in enough money from its water utility. But that very same government, which serves one of the nation’s poorest cities, is still pumping dirty water through the tap after receiving close scrutiny for having dangerously high levels of lead in their drinking water.
Melissa Mays, a mother and Flint resident who started the advocacy group Water You Fighting For, said that when she began seeing water shutoff notices months ago, she and her husband determined that they would simply let the utility shut off their water and they would begin living solely on bottled water.
Her family has already stopped doing laundry at home, cooking with tap water, and has begun limiting their showers to seven minutes because the water is so toxic. They still don't drink the water because the filters grow bacteria, she said.
She is now scrambling to pay an $891 bill by May 19 and will have to miss house and car payments to keep their home.
"The thing is they've been sending me shutoff letters for months. My husband and I talked and said, 'you know what, I don't want to pay for this poison. It's made us sick,'" Ms Mays told the Independent. The letter "changes everything. We don't want to lose our home. This is our home."
Some of her neighbours have simply decided they'll have to walk away from their homes. Others don't know what they're going to do. Ms Mays said there's a sense of panic in Flint.
City officials say that they have no choice but to take the strong measures. The state of Michigan stopped subsidising Flint's water in March after the state Department of Environmental Quality found Flint's lead levels tested within federal limits. That subsidy paid $40m to pay for roughly two-thirds of the residents' water bills.
"We have to have revenue coming in, so we can't give people revenue, I mean excuse me, give people water at the tap and not get revenue coming in to pay those bills," Al Mooney, a representative with the city's Treasury Department, told a NBC.
The City of Flint made national headlines in 2015 after testing showed elevated levels of lead in the city’s drinking water. The water had seen a spike in lead levels after staff in charge of switching the city’s water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to a different provider to save money failed to follow proper anti-corrosion protocol.
Because the water wasn't treated properly, ageing service lines leading to homes in the city began to release lead. Soon after the switch, Flint residents began complaining about the smell and colour of the water coming out of their taps.
Those complaints preceded nearly a year of mixed messages coming from city officials and studies of the water before a lead advisory was issued, and, later, the declaration of a state emergency by Governor Rick Snyder and former President Barack Obama. Fallout from the crisis has led to at least four officials being charged with felonies for false pretences and conspiracies, an award of $100m to the city from the EPA to upgrade infrastructure, and a $97m federal class action lawsuit settlement that requires the state of Michigan to replace lead or galvanised steel water lines.