5 years after Flint water crisis, city battles widespread mistrust originally appeared on abcnews.go.com
Jacob Uherek holds an open bottle of water in one hand and brushes his teeth with the other at his kitchen sink in his Flint, Michigan, home.
He said his family still won't use the water five years after the city's water source was switched and the local water became contaminated with lead, even after officials said the situation had vastly improved.
"This is just what we gotta do here in Flint," he said, rinsing his toothbrush with another pour from the bottle and taking a drink to rinse his mouth.
Two of the family's seven kids come to the sink next. Six-year-old Gabriel stands on his toes to reach the sink and wet his toothbrush with another splash from the bottle while 8-year-old Nala uses her teeth to loosen the lid of another bottle.
Ukerek's wife, Jamie Marshall, gets to the sink with Michael, 4, and pours water into a Thomas the Tank Engine cup for 2-year-old Rafael to rinse.
Twelve-year-old Travon uses another bottle to fill 8-month-old puppy Callie's water bowl. Marshall said the family can go through four water bottles just brushing teeth -- seven if each kid opens a bottle.
Later that night, Marshall will use four bottles of water to boil spaghetti for dinner. Some meals require an entire case, she said.
"It's normal -- it's kind of sickening to say it's normal," Marshall said.
Half a decade since the Flint water crisis began, Marshall said she'll never use unfiltered water again, and Uherek said he needs to see more changes to consider trusting it.
"As long as we reside inside the city it's just going to continue," Uherek said.
They aren't the only ones that feel that way.
Half of Flint residents questioned in a recent survey commissioned by the city and funded by the Department of Health and Human Services said they still don't trust the water, only a slight decline from two years ago.
Though state and independent monitors have tested the water in Flint, officials acknowledge that improved test results can only go so far in a community that no longer trusts its water -- or government.
And Flint is still working to improve the system that treats and distributes water, a challenge faced by hundreds of communities around the country looking for money to replace or repair aging pipes. The Environmental Protection Agency said the country needs to spend more than $470 billion to maintain and improve drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years.
Broken system, broken trust
Prior to April 2014, the city of Flint used water through a pipeline to Detroit. Residents complained that doing so resulted in high water bills and that it strained Flint's budget.
So Michigan officials stepped in and made a decision that Flint -- already under a state-declared financial emergency -- should switch to the local Flint River to save money.
But the water from the Flint river wasn't treated with the right chemicals, wore away the protective coating meant to prevent older pipes from corroding, and allowed lead to leach into the same water that residents were using to drink, cook and bathe.
For almost two years after the switch, residents said the water wasn't right.
It came out of the faucet brown, clogged filters and caused skin rashes. The state maintained the water was safe and residents continued to use it. State and federal investigations have since concluded that the state's environmental agency was "callous and dismissive" and that multiple agencies could have prevented the crisis.
The city has since switched back to water from Detroit. Even though some of the damage to infrastructure isn't easily repaired, the state's agency in charge of drinking water said the system meets all legal requirements.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said she understands how difficult it is for residents to trust government information about the water.
"Out of everything that's happened the trust has been eroded in the city," Weaver told ABC News. "I mean it's just got a damaging level and trust is so hard to re-establish and I think that's probably been our greatest challenge is re-establishing trust because we had people at every level of government local state federal. Tell us our water's fine. Drink up."
A 'matter of personal preference'
At this point, it's "a matter of personal preference" for families if they're comfortable using the water, Eric Oswald, director of the drinking water program at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, told ABC News.
"Every scientific data point we have shows that the water system is doing very well right now," he said.
As for whether the water is safe to drink, "All we can do is keep testing the water and prove that the water that's delivered to the homes meets the stringent requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act," Oswald said.
But the water crisis was traumatic for many residents, said Vicki Johnson-Lawrence, a social epidemiologist at Michigan State University, who has worked with the city to survey residents to better understand the long-term impact of the crisis.
"They still have to figure out how to trust the community, the government, again after this is all happened. And that stands in the way of moving forward in other ways," she told ABC News.
Weaver said she's telling residents to stay on bottled or filtered water until all the lead service lines in the city are replaced and she's absolutely confident the water is free of lead. She said she wants to put public health first.
"If it takes longer and we have to stay on bottled and filtered water, I'd rather do that because I think people will feel more comfortable when they know we've looked at every single pipe in the city of Flint," she said.
Getting water to the people
But the city's decision to urge residents to use bottled water is at odds with providing it.
The state stopped providing bottled water last year, citing new test results that found the system complied with drinking water rules. So now the city is relying on bottled water donated by companies like Nestle and private charities.
The branch of Nestle Waters that operates in North America has donated about 3.2 million bottles of water to Flint residents and schools since October 2015, according to its website.
Jeffrey Hawkins, pastor at Prince of Peace Missionary Baptist Church in Flint, said distribution is another issue. Volunteers from his church deliver water to an estimated 4,000 seniors and other residents who can't get to one of the distribution centers.
Hawkins said there are three distribution sites providing donated water on a regular basis.
"Those three sites cannot, in no shape form or fashion, give water supply to the entire city. It just can't happen," Hawkins said.
The cost of water is still another sticking point. Oswald said residents need to use or at least run their water as part of rebuilding the system, but residents said they shouldn't have to pay high rates for water they don't want to use.
One positive outcome from the water crisis is that Flint received millions of dollars from the state and federal governments, and grants from private groups, to expand resources for nutrition and literacy programs, which Weaver said the city needed even before it became a household name.
Still, Johnson-Lawrence said the broader impact of the crisis could linger for generations.
"I would say that we're moving in the direction of better but there's still a long way to go," she said. "And that's the hesitation in saying that things are OK or that they're better because they've improved. That doesn't make them good. It just makes them better."
'It makes us feel pretty stuck sometimes'
A little after 5 a.m., Uherek pulls on a sweatshirt in a dark dining room.
Marshall leans on the banister to pull on her shoes in the foyer.
The couple is going through a routine they've perfected over the last year-and-a-half when state resources dried up. Every Tuesday, they get up early to drop off one of the family cars at a church around the corner where, in a few hours, volunteers will hand out cases of donated bottled water.
By the time they arrive, two other cars already are in line. Uherek leaves the truck and jumps back into the family SUV to go home and get their kids ready for the day.
When Marshall comes back to the church hours later, after dropping off the kids at school outside Flint, it's just about time for distribution to start. They said if they don't save a place in line in the morning, Marshall would have to wait in line at least two hours.
"Five years of donations, and now it's like we're hitting a brick wall. It's like the money's gone. What do you want us to do? We didn't actually get a permanent solution we got a temporary band aid," Uherek said.
The family has lived much of their lives in Flint. Uherek and Marshall grew up there, met in high school, and moved back from Arizona five years ago to be closer to family and for a lower cost of living.
They said they've looked into moving but can't get a decent offer to sell their house.
"It makes us feel pretty stuck sometimes, like we're never going to be able to move out of the city, but at the same time we just keep the faith," Marshall said. "And hopefully one day we'll able to get out of the city -- or one day they'll fix the problem."