Flint officials have warned thousands of the city’s citizens affected by a year-long water crisis that they could lose their homes if they do not pony up millions in unpaid water bills.
City officials sent warning letters to more than 8,000 residents in April notifying them that Michigan ended a program that was paying most of their water bills. Nearly $6 million in water charges must be collected within a month to stave off possible foreclosure, according to the city.
“While I understand, this is the way that the law reads, we are in a totally different situation,” Flint resident Melissa Mays told reporters Thursday. “I got scared for probably the first time since this all started,” Mays added, referring to last year’s water crisis.
State officials and Flint residents have been struggling to get the small, mostly black town’s water system up and running after lead contaminated its water supply. High levels of lead are believed to be a contributing factor to the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease.
Officials switched the small eastern Michigan city’s water supply from Lake Huron in 2015 to the Flint River in a bid to save money. But the state applied the wrong regulations and standards for drinking water, which ultimately resulted in corroded pipes. There have been a handful of deaths connected to the crisis.
Citizens, many of whom are living a tick above the state’s poverty line, are now being asked to pay down bills for water pipes that are still not considered up to par.
May told reporters in April after getting the letter that she was considering skipping her mortgage payment to come up with the balance. Officials are asking her for $891.60 in overdue water bills to stave off possible foreclosure.
“I don’t know of any other choice,” she said. “I can’t lose my house.”
Many Flint residents still don’t trust their taps, so they line up for free bottled water or install city-recommended filters to treat lead-infused water. City spokeswoman Kristin Moore said she’s sympathetic toward the citizens’ plight.
“This is difficult for residents, too,” she said. “It’s a tough place to be in, but we’re just trying to do the best we can.”
Moore said people have until next February to pay before the government forces compliance. And the city called the 8,000 letters “routine” in a statement, despite not sending such letters in 2016 when the scandal made waves.
Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, have been on a mission to pursue those they believe are responsible for allowing contaminated water into Flint homes ‚Äì they have pointed the bony finger at state and national environmental agencies.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, for instance, filed charges last July against three employees of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services and three others from the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Health and Human Services employees Nancy Peeler, Robert Scott and Corinne Miller, were charged with misconduct in office, as well as conspiring to commit misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty. The three state employees allegedly withheld or disregarded blood tests showing high lead levels in Flint residents.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also shared a large share of the blame for not reacting quickly enough to the incident.
One report published in March claims the EPA only acts to enforce clean drinking water regulations when public outrage reaches a deafening pitch, implying negligence on the part of agency officials.
Nearly 2,000 citizens of Flint sued the agency for overlooking the problem until it was too late.