Filtering Lead-Contaminated Waters in Michigan

When the water in Flint, Mich., became contaminated with lead, the community of 99,000 residents faced a crisis that left many vulnerable to health problems, stress, and financial strain.

As the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state government, and National Guard respond, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) also assisted some of the most vulnerable people in Flint.

Supported with a $10,000 emergency grant from UMCOR, the Crossroads District of The United Methodist Church  worked with government agencies and relief groups to provide filtration pitchers, replacement filters, and bottled water to people in Flint. 

The Crossroads District first contacted UMCOR about the water situation in Flint in October 2015. "Together, we took a pro-active ecumenical approach to the crisis months before it became national news," said Greg Forrester, who leads UMCOR's U.S. Disaster Response work.

"We have eight United Methodist churches that serve Flint," explained Peter Plum, emergency water crisis coordinator. Pastors of the churches met to discuss how to respond to the water crisis, and they agreed the best way to coordinate a church-wide response was to hire a coordinator. 

Plum helped to reach the most vulnerable people in Flint. "The county and the city are [offered] everything that we  [offered] in terms of filters," Plum explained, "so we decided to get involved with constituents and neighbors that don't necessarily trust the government."

Funds became tighter for both government and non-government organizations when the water filters lasted less than the expected time. "When this first happened, the water was so bad that a 90-day filter was lasting 30 days," said Plum.

When will water in Flint be safe? It's difficult to tell, agreed Plum and others. "We're worried about long-term effects," he said.

The contamination began in April 2014, when the city discontinued purchasing water from Detroit. The new source was water drawn from the Flint River and treated in Flint. Several months after this conversion, unsafe contaminates and lead began to appear in the water.

In October 2015, Flint resumed its agreement to purchase water from Detroit, but there are still unsafe levels of contamination and risks of chemicals and lead in the water. Because of the corrosiveness of the water supplied from the Flint River for several months, there are outdated pipes throughout the water distribution system that are failing and releasing contaminates.

Plum is now working toward expanding the response by working with ecumenical partners, as well as looking into which churches in Flint could serve as "safe water stations" for the community. "We need both an ecumenical and a long-term strategy," said Plum.

Susan Kim, journalist and regular contributor to www.umcor.org

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