Why Does Flint Need Jaden Smith to Donate Water Filters?

The celebrity's foundation will donate water filtration systems to the Michigan city. But what does that say about how the city has handled its water crisis?
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Saginaw Street in downtown is shown on February 7th, 2016, in Flint, Michigan.

Though Flint's water has been declared safe to drink, many residents remain doubtful.

Over the weekend, Jaden Smith's JUST Water foundation announced that it would partner with the First Trinity Baptist Church to bring free, mobile water filtration systems to residents of Flint, Michigan. The donation from the 20-year-old rapper and celebrity son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith made headlines, but also raised questions: Michigan's governor proclaimed Flint's water contamination crisis resolved in April of 2018—so why do Flint residents still need help accessing clean water?

As late as October of last year, residents of Flint were still gathering in the hundreds to pick up donations of water bottles, forming lines stretching as long as eight blocks. In the last six months, there hasn't always been enough bottled water for everyone: The state ended its two-year-long free bottle distribution in April, when then-Governor Rick Snyder announced, controversially, that Flint's water quality had been officially restored. Without new bottles coming in from the government, non-profits like churches—and, now, Smith's foundation—have stepped in to fill the gap, as many residents still refuse to trust the city's water, even though it has been declared safe to drink.

That mistrust is well-founded. When the city first switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014, residents immediately started to notice problems. Foul-smelling brown water came out of their taps, and children began to fall ill. Yet for two years, city and state officials continued to deny the worries of the city's mostly black and low-income residents, insisting that the water was safe to drink.

But, as is now common knowledge, it wasn't. Flint residents spent those two years drinking, bathing, and cooking with water contaminated with high levels of lead. Testing found that thousands of Flint children had dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstream (which can seriously affect childhood development). Additionally, 12 people died from a Legionnaires' disease outbreak associated with the contaminated water.

Facing overwhelming evidence that the city had essentially poisoned its residents, city and state officials finally began to acknowledge the situation in late 2015, and Snyder declared a state of emergency in the county in January of 2016. Now, after years of government action and lawsuits on both the state and federal level, Michigan officials have declared that the emergency has ended, and Flint's water is safe to drink.

But the corrosion of trust between residents and the government isn't the only reason residents continue to line up for bottled water: Scientists and public advocates say that although the situation has improved, there are still worries about water quality in Flint.

One of the first researchers to test Flint's water when the crisis began, Marc Edward of Virginia Tech, warned Mother Jones in April of last year that, even though his team's data showed that water quality is now within range of federal standards, "that doesn't mean it's safe." Thousands of lead-contaminated water service lines have now been replaced in the city, but Edwards says that other sources of contamination could still exist, including pipes not owned by the government in private homes.

Additionally, the city's efforts to replace potentially lead-contaminated service lines is still ongoing. Though over 7,700 have been replaced, the city is committed to replacing over 18,000 lines, a task that it doesn't expect to complete before 2020. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council—a national environmental group whose January of 2016 lawsuit against city and state officials galvanized action—thousands of contaminated pipes "likely remain in Flint."

According to NPR, Flint's mayor, Karen Weaver, believes that the city's water won't be safe until all the lead pipes are replaced. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who was one of the first doctors to find high levels of lead in Flint kids' bloodstreams, agrees. In response to Snyder's decision to end the state's free water program in April of 2018, Hanna-Attisha tweeted: "This is wrong. Until all lead pipes are replaced, state should make available bottled water and filters to Flint residents."

In August of 2018, the NRDC and its partners went back to court to challenge Flint's ongoing response to the water crisis. The advocates had two main concerns: First, they wanted the city to explain and defend its data-collecting methods that led city officials to conclude that there were only 18,000 lines that needed to be replaced, and, second, they sought to question whether the city should have been working faster to provide Flint households with faucet filters. In February of this year, as a response to the court action, the city of Flint agreed to implement a new statistical model that the NRDC argues will "improve the efficiency of the City's pipe replacement program."

Even though excavation and pipe replacement continues in Flint, many residents say little could convince them to trust the government and drink the city's water again. "The trust is gone for everybody," one Flint resident, Kaleka Lewis Harris, told NPR last October.

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