U.S. and World Politics

Not Paying for Poison

Flint residents are being punished for not paying for poisoned water

By Anthony Baxter

Nakiya Wakes, who lives in Flint, refuses to pay for the water supply that made her family sick. “I refuse to pay for poison,” she told me. Because she owes $1,983.59 to the city of Flint in unpaid water bills, the city cut off her water supply last month. She turns the taps, and they run empty. 

Nakiya showed me the boxes of bottled water stacked up on her porch outside. The state has shut a number of free bottled water pick up sites in Flint—or PODs as they’re known here locally. It is feared the remaining four will soon face the axe. That means more residents are forced to buy the bottled water they need. 

Nakiya and her son begin to pour bottle after bottle of Nestle water into the cistern of their toilet. “It takes two cases of bottled water for just one flush,” Nakiya tells me. “And so we can wash, I pour bottled water into a pan and heat it up in the microwave.” Those costs add to Nakiya’s $180 a month bill for power and light. And the trash in Nakiya’s bathroom is overflowing with crushed plastic bottles.

Nakiya, who holds down a low paid part-time job and lives paycheck to paycheck, stopped making any further payments on her outstanding water bill over a year ago. She and her family underwent tests, which revealed an alarming rise in the level of lead in their blood. Her son has learning difficulties. Her daughter has suffered a seizure. Nakiya blames drinking Flint’s poisoned water—as she does for the loss of her unborn twins. 

Months after I first started reporting on Nakiya for a documentary film, her story was highlighted by Hillary Clinton in a 2016 election campaign video. But the national news cameras have long since gone. And instead of the “fix” for Flint promised by visiting politicians, Nakiya and her fellow residents now face the final indignity. 

“It’s like we’re living in a real life horror movie that never ends,” says mother of four and Flint activist Melissa Mays, who has also received a water shut-off notice.

“Up to 90 homes-a-day are being shut off. And it’s still winter. We’re going through a deadly flu outbreak. People are unable to clean or bathe and so people are passing around the sickness. I get it that the city needs money—but the state should be paying. They did this.” Despite repeated requests, the City of Flint has been unable to confirm the exact number of homes where the water has been shut off.

It was after investigating water shut-offs in nearby Detroit—which were deemed an affront to human rights by the United Nations—that I first began following Melissa and other Flint residents in August 2015. Back then, the city had been branded an economic basket case by Michigan governor Rick Snyder and placed under “emergency management.” And in order to save money, the disastrous decision was taken to switch the city’s water supply from Lake Huron, to the local Flint River.

Melissa’s work that I filmed back then [and that of fellow resident Leanne Walters] was crucial in rallying Flint residents to conduct a citywide lead tests with the help of professor Marc Edwards at Virginia Tech university. The shocking results forced a U-turn by the state to return the Flint’s water to the Great Lakes. However, today, scientists are unable to agree on whether the city’s water is safe. And the residents don’t know whom to trust. Many refuse to use the water for anything other than flushing the toilet. 

But now for Nakiya’s family and hundreds of others like them, even that is no longer an option.

Anthony Baxter’s feature documentary on the Flint water crisis is currently in post-production and will be released worldwide later this year.

The Guardian, April 4, 2018