Highest US Water Rates In Flint, MI As Thousands Poisoned With Lead

The citizens of Flint, Michigan, paid the highest US water rates even as the system crumbled and became contaminated with lead.

Flint is one of the poorest cities in the country, but residents paid the highest U.S. water rates, according to a new report. The information comes from a study commissioned by Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group based in Washington with offices across the United States.

Among other things, “The State of Public Water in the United States” compares water charges for the 500 largest water systems in the country in order to find who pays the highest US water rates. The survey, which the group claims is the largest of its size nationwide, found overall that large, privately-owned systems charged more than similarly sized public water systems.

That pattern is broken by Flint, where its public system charged the highest US water rates. The bills were calculated for households using 60,000 gallons of water per year for the purposes of comparison. The highest US water rates add up to an average annual bill of $864.32 in Flint, where the service population is just under 125,000. In comparison, Phoenix, Arizona, reported the lowest average bill at $84.24 — less than a 10th of the highest US water rates in Flint — over a population of 1.5 million. At the same time, a staggering 42 percent of Flint’s population lives below the poverty level, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Mary Grant, one of the study’s authors, commented to Detroit Free Press, “It far exceeds what the United Nations designates as affordable for water and sewer service.”

The title of highest US water rates may now actually belong to a different municipality. The survey was conducted in January 2015, and as the published results note, in August of 2015, the courts ordered the city of Flint to reduce water rates by 35 percent and end a specific service fee. It was also ordered to pay back more than $15 million to the water and sewer fund, monies the court found were wrongfully used to settle lawsuits.

This recent report confirming that Flint paid the highest US water rates is just the latest development in an ongoing dilemma confronting the city. The trouble began in 2014 when the public utility switched from using water from Lake Huron through the Detroit water system to using the Flint River as its primary source. It was supposed to be a cost-saving measure, which is ironic in light of the current news that residents paid the highest US water rates. The problem is that the Flint River water is corrosive. It was found to have eight times the level of chloride (salts) as the Lake Huron water.

Adding phosphates is the usual way to neutralize corrosive chlorides in water, and it was the city’s failure to treat the water properly that resulted in the contamination of the system with lead. The corrosive water ate away at the copper pipes, which had lead solder. That’s how lead ended up in the water system and inside the homes of thousands of people.

Lead is poisonous to human beings and particularly affects the neurological development of children and fetuses. According to Michigan health officials, all children who drank Flint water since April of 2014 have been exposed to the poisonous metal.

The Flint water system reconnected back to the Detroit water system and its Lake Huron sources in October 2015, but there are still dangers and ongoing issues with a water infrastructure system, which is in need of many improvements and long overdue maintenance.

Controversy continues to ignite over what has become one of the country’s largest ever public health emergencies and a growing political scandal for Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder and other state officials. Emails and other documents have been brought forward that show officials were aware of the issue and downplayed it for months before any action was taken. Flint’s health department is currently under review, and Governor Rick Snyder has been called to testify on the Flint water crisis before a US congressional committee next month.

Whether the city of Flint still charges the highest US water rates or not, it’s clear there remain many questions to be answered and accounted for when it comes to the current crisis.

[Photo by Carlos Osorio/AP Images]