In Flint, the tragedy continues and the cameras return


For more than three years, the Flint water cisis has offered a compelling story of official failure and citizen success. Now comes a fresh focus via TV -- a PBS documentary soon (May 31), a Lifetime movie later. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

To some people, the
water crisis in Flint, Mich., is old news, now resolved.

The national stories
have been written. The original water source has been re-instated.
Officials have been rebuked, in some cases indicted. “When the
lights went out and the cameras (left), the narrative ended,” said
the Rev. Lee Bailey of Flint.

But now the cameras
are back. On Wednesday, PBS' “Nova” has a fresh hour on the
subject; meanwhile, filming has started on a cable movie starring
Queen Latifah.

The story lingers,
Flint people say. “The crisis is over,” said Gina Luster. “Now
it's a disaster.”

Much of the impact
remains with kids. Marla Garland, 43, says her teens have been
hospitalized recently with stomach pains, diarrhea and more.

But adults have also
been impacted. “I'm still in constant pain,” said Luster, also
43. “Out of a month, I might have three good days.”

Her father, Veo
Luster, 61, happens to be one of the contractors digging up old pipes
and putting in new ones. “You're in the infancy stage of it,” he
said. “I give it seven years.”

But this new
attention also brings good news. “Americans really owe Flint a huge
debt of gratitude,” said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor
who sees other cities having similar problems.

A similar crisis
gripped Washington, D.C., for a decade, Edwards said, but officials
denied it. “It really showed you why a lie is so powerful .... If
you get away with it, you keep your job.”

In Flint, people
didn't let that happen. “LeeAnne (Walters) is a classic example of
someone who would not take no for an answer,” said Siddhartha Roy,
who works with Edwards at Virginia Tech.

Edwards calls
Walters a “hero mom” and “Erin Brockovich on steroids”; Paula
Apsell, the “Nova” producer, sees her as “a real citizen
scientist.”

Walters, 39, had
taken a one-year medical-assistant course and worked for a half-year.
Tthen, with her husband in the Navy, she stayed at home with her
pre-school twin sons and teen-aged daughter.

That's when she
noticed the problems, after the city switched its water source to the
Flint River. Soon, one twin was undersized and often sick.

Others also had
problems with the water. “It was brown,” said Robert Mitchner,
45. “It started smelling bad .... My son was afraid to take a
bath.”

Officials at the
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality were unresponsive,
Walters said. “Their approach was, 'We've got the education and you
don't. Know your role.'”

Then she contacted
Miguel Del Toral, an Environmental Protection Agency manager in
Chicago. “Miguel was the first person who didn't treat me like I
was crazy or didn't know anything,” she said.

She read scientific
reports and faxed reports to him. It was the first time, she said,
anyone realized that officials – despite their reports to the
contrary – hadn't added the required corrosion-control chemicals.

A year after the
water-source change, Walters was pointed toward Edwards. “When she
called me in April 2015, all the science was done,” he said.
“LeeAnne figured out everything (including) that the state had lied
to the EPA in writing about using corrosion control.”

He brought an army
of student volunteers from Virginia Tech, to bring a new round of
Flint testing. In October of 2015 – 18 months after the original
switch – Flint went back to its original water source. The next
step involves water filters and the replacement of pipes battered by
corrosive water.

The “Nova” film
was greeted enthusiastically at a Flint screening last week. “I
started to cry,” said Michael Vincent, 53, a Flint chiropractor.
“We got answers.”

Some wished it had
focused on the actions of public officials. That issue is still
debated.

Edwards, furious
about the failures of his fellow scientists, feels others are
relatively blameless: “Scientists ad engineers turned into
environmental criminals .... The officials did the right thing. They
reached out to the appropriate people at the EPA and (MDEQ) and,
unfortunately, they were lied to.”

Still,Walters
argues, officials shouldn't have been so quick to believe the
scientists and ignore the public. “When all those people tell you
there's a problem, you have to do something.”

-- “Nova: Poisoned
Water,” 9 p.m. Wednesday (May 31), PBS

-- “Flint” is
now filming in Canada and Lifetime hasn't set an airdate. Bruce
Beresford, who directed the Oscar-winning “Driving Miss Daisy,”
has a cast led by Queen Latifah. Betsy Brandt (“Life in Pieces”)
plays LeeAnne Walters, with Rob Morrow (“Northern Exposure”) as
Marc Edwards.