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Infrastructure Bill Aims To Address Lead Pipes: Lessons Learned From Flint

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week we've been meeting people in communities that could be affected by the infrastructure package working its way through Congress. One place already familiar with a critical infrastructure need is Flint, Mich. The city has now almost finished replacing lead pipes that run to people's homes. It cost close to $100 million - money from a settlement that the state reached with residents after the government created a massive public health crisis by switching the city's water source, which poisoned people who live there. Well, with tens of billions of dollars in the infrastructure bill aimed towards clean water nationwide, our co-host Ari Shapiro returned to Flint to see what lessons that city can offer the rest of the U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Pastor Overton?

ALLEN OVERTON: I'm sorry I'm late. How are you? Pastor Overton - how are you?

SHAPIRO: Pastor Allen Overton was one of the people who sued Flint and Michigan State officials, resulting in that settlement to get the lead pipes replaced. He carries himself with gravitas, wearing a suit, tie and cufflinks.

OVERTON: We just celebrated my third anniversary here.

SHAPIRO: Congratulations.

OVERTON: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And he tells me there's one thing that could always strip away that air of buttoned-up poise - drinking from a water fountain.

OVERTON: I'm a big kid in that aspect. I like water fountain. I like to see the water squirt out and try to get into my mouth. But I'm not a fan of it anymore.

SHAPIRO: That's so sad to hear.

OVERTON: Yeah. Well, it's reality.

SHAPIRO: Here in Flint's Christ Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, he's had all the water fountains turned off. Most of them have been removed from the building.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC BAG CRINKLING)

SHAPIRO: There's one still in the church basement covered in a big trash bag. Pastor Overton pushes the button, and nothing comes out.

OVERTON: I don't know. Well, it's poison.

SHAPIRO: Right next to it is a water cooler that everybody uses instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

SHAPIRO: Pastor Overton's mistrust of tap water goes beyond fountains, even beyond his hometown of Flint. He was recently in Ohio.

OVERTON: We were out on vacation, and I had my grandson with me. And I was like, whoa. We'll buy some water. We weren't even in Michigan. I said, I'll buy some water. Let me just buy you a bottle of water. I don't trust water fountains anymore.

SHAPIRO: Anywhere.

OVERTON: Anywhere.

SHAPIRO: You hear this sort of thing a lot from people in Flint. They've been on a long, hard road for years. In 2014, their government pumped water into Flint homes that corroded the lead from service pipes, and for months, officials insisted the water was safe. Internal emails have shown that they continued to tell people it was drinkable even when state leaders knew it was poisoned. Today more than 90% of the lead pipes running to people's homes in Flint have been replaced. The water gets tested for lead, and it's clean. But Pastor Overton says the trauma has not gone away.

OVERTON: The worst part of it all is that you trusted people that you thought you could trust.

SHAPIRO: In the government, you mean.

OVERTON: In the government. If you can't trust the government to tell you the truth about water, then we've got some serious problems in America.

SHAPIRO: And can that trust ever be rebuilt?

OVERTON: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: I think you can appreciate that our pipes are like straws. You see that? They're just like drinking water straws.

SHAPIRO: Earlier this year, at a House Committee hearing on the infrastructure bill, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha testified remotely from Flint. On the video screen, she held up the first lead pipe that was pulled out of the ground in the city. She's a pediatrician whose research revealed that kids in Flint were being poisoned. At this hearing, she told lawmakers that pipes like this one belong in the Smithsonian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HANNA-ATTISHA: I look forward to the museum exhibits and the history books showcasing that time when the leaders of our great nation, you guys, boldly took action to invest not only in our drinking water infrastructure but also in the foundation of our nation's greatest and most valuable resource, our children.

SHAPIRO: Four months later, I asked Dr. Hanna-Attisha how she feels about the infrastructure package that the Senate ultimately passed.

HANNA-ATTISHA: The folks on the air can't see me, but I'm giddy. I am absolutely giddy when I heard about the inclusion of the removal of lead pipes. This is something that we should have done generations ago. We've known lead has been a poison literally for centuries, and we really lack the political will to do anything about it. We've kind of punted the ball.

SHAPIRO: Lead poisoning is a very familiar phrase, but can you put some meat on those bones for us? Like, what does lead actually do to kids?

HANNA-ATTISHA: It actually lowers IQ levels. It impacts behavior, leads to developmental problems, attention problems, focusing problems. And we also know that it's a form of environmental racism. Poor kids, Black and brown kids, communities of color are disproportionately shouldering the burden of lead poisoning and other environmental contaminants.

SHAPIRO: When Michigan first declared a state of emergency over Flint's water crisis in 2016, I met a woman there named Jeneyah McDonald. She and her husband were born and raised in Flint, and when I first met the family, their boys were 2 and 6 years old.

JENEYAH MCDONALD: I don't know any way to explain to a 6-year-old why you can't take a bath anymore every day, why you can't help Mommy wash the dishes anymore. So I told him it's poison, and that way he'll know I'm serious. Don't play with it.

SHAPIRO: We've checked in with her regularly ever since. Now her boys are 8 and 12. The younger one has developmental delays, and she wonders whether it has anything to do with the water. When I meet Jeneyah McDonald again outside her home in Flint, she wears a red T-shirt that says, living my best life.

It's so good to see you. I'm vaccinated. Can I give you a hug?

MCDONALD: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: There's a small, above-ground pool on the lawn next to the house. She tells me she fills it up using the hose.

OK, so a little more confidence in the water...

MCDONALD: I mean...

SHAPIRO: ...Than last time.

MCDONALD: We don't have much choice.

SHAPIRO: Of course.

MCDONALD: And I can't stop living.

SHAPIRO: She still buys pallets of bottled water every week for cooking, drinking and brushing teeth. She keeps them in a corner of her kitchen.

I see you've got your stack of...

MCDONALD: Yep, yep, yep, yep.

SHAPIRO: ...Water bottles here - like, five pallets.

MCDONALD: Oh, that's low. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: That's low.

MCDONALD: Yep. I'll fill that up Sunday when I go to the store.

SHAPIRO: She also has a filter on the tap. She checks the light to make sure it's green.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

MCDONALD: I try and keep a clear glass by the sink so I can fill it up to see with some paper behind it. I mean, who else is doing that? Are you guys having to do that at home?

SHAPIRO: I'm just thinking, like, the first time we came here, we spent a day with you. And a lot of that day was dealing with, how are we going to get water? Like, you said you had joint pain from opening so many bottles.

MCDONALD: Yes.

SHAPIRO: These days, what percentage of your time in a day is taken up with dealing with water?

MCDONALD: None, not really. I don't go and stand in any lines if people are donating water anymore. It can't consume my life anymore. It's just part of my budget now.

SHAPIRO: It's a significant part of her budget. She spends $50 a month on bottled water, another hundred a month on filters for the tap. And her monthly water bill from the city is almost $200 on top of that. Beyond the continuing financial cost, the pain she feels about what her government did to her family has not gone away, either.

MCDONALD: It's not like we're talking about, we watered our grass, and it all turned brown. We're talking about, our children drink this water, and they're damaged. They're hurt for life.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I hear there's still a lot of anger there.

MCDONALD: Hurt, I think, is - the anger has went away, and the hurt has kicked in and the disappointment in the nation we live in. I mean, we're in America. Everybody wants to come to America. And how dare we treat our own people so badly? How dare we...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MCDONALD: ...And then shake our finger at other countries as if, you know, shame on them? No. Shame on us.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MCDONALD: Shame on us for not being able to take care of home at least.

SHAPIRO: She sees what happened in Flint as part of a larger pattern of racial injustice. She says it's not a coincidence that this all took place in a city that is majority-Black.

MCDONALD: When are we going to look at the true issue, that it is a race issue?

SHAPIRO: That's something that has been talked about a lot in the infrastructure package - helping disenfranchised communities, brown and Black communities that often get left out. How hopeful are you that that part of it is going to follow through?

MCDONALD: Hopefully, someone will say and listen and hear that we can do better. And it's not hard at all. It's not hard at all. Just do the right thing.

JIM ANANICH: I think it'll be a game-changer.

SHAPIRO: Senator Jim Ananich is the minority leader in the Michigan State Senate, a Democrat, and he lives in Flint. He's been fighting to get justice for his city since the earliest days of this crisis, and he's thrilled that the rest of the country will now be getting money to replace lead pipes even if experts say the amount in this package is just a down payment on what it will cost to finish the job.

ANANICH: Everything went wrong here in Michigan and here in Flint. They did everything the wrong way you could do it. The motives were wrong. The way they handled it was wrong. The way they informed people was wrong. So I would say do the exact opposite of what happened here.

SHAPIRO: What you're describing points to the fact that this is more than a health crisis. This is a trust in government crisis.

ANANICH: Yes.

SHAPIRO: So now you've got this infrastructure package where Congress in Washington is saying, we're going to come help you. How do you get citizens to trust the people in charge who are saying, we're here to help you?

ANANICH: We just take the money.

SHAPIRO: You're saying, don't try to repair trust in Congress.

ANANICH: Don't try to repair it. No, don't do that.

SHAPIRO: That is very pragmatic of you.

ANANICH: Yeah. I can't be idealistic right now. I got to be - just take the money. Improve your communities. And we'll fix - we can fix trust in federal government later.

SHAPIRO: The people in Flint may never trust their government again. But Jeneyah McDonald tells me she is still hopeful that the rest of the country can learn from what her city went through.

MCDONALD: It is long overdue, long overdue. This country is old.

(LAUGHTER)

MCDONALD: And let's be real. It needs an overhaul...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MCDONALD: ...Inside and out. And it should not take for a whole city to get hurt for someone to say, hey; maybe we should start doing something about this.

SHAPIRO: She would never have wanted her city to be this kind of an example. But now that it is, she says, maybe some good might come out of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "EVEREST")

KELLY: That's our co-host Ari Shapiro reporting from Flint. And tomorrow, a look at another aspect of infrastructure's intersection with health and how experts are racing to slow down the growing impact of deadly heat waves across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "EVEREST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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