LANSING, Mich. — Four remaining free bottled water stations will close in Flint, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced Friday, more than two years after the state opened them in response to a man-made, lead-tainted drinking water crisis that threatened the health of its residents.
The statement came with an update that the city's water has tested below the federal lead and copper limit of 15 parts per billion for about two years. Levels of 4 ppb were recorded during the first three months of 2018.
"We have worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended," Snyder, a Republican, said. "We will now focus even more of our efforts on continuing with the health, education and economic development assistance needed to help move Flint forward."
Residents and local officials criticized the move, noting that many in the city of 100,000 remain distrustful after their water supply was contaminated with lead for 18 months. The contamination happened in 2014 and 2015 when officials used river water that wasn't properly treated. As a result, lead leached from old pipes and fixtures, and the state is still working to replace pipes in the community.
"Over the past few weeks, residents of Flint have been expressing their great anxiety over the potential end to the supply of bottled water," Mayor Karen Weaver wrote in a letter to state officials. "Free bottled water should be provided to the people of Flint until the last known lead-tainted pipe has been replaced."
The four bottled-water sites will shutter once remaining supplies are depleted — an estimated four to seven days from now, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman, Tiffany Brown, said. Residents are no longer urged to avoid Flint's tap water, she said.
"Out of an abundance of caution we encourage residents to use filters until their confidence in tap water is restored," Brown said. "This is a personal choice because again, the water is in compliance with the federal standard."
After Snyder declared a state of emergency on Jan. 5, 2016, Flint residents trekked to fire stations for filters as well as daily rations of one case of bottled water per household. The Michigan National Guard and volunteers also went door-to-door to distribute water and filters.
The state began shutting down Flint's nine total free bottled water sites last summer, after test results showed lead and copper levels had dipped below federal action levels.
Flint resident Melissa Mays — who filed a lawsuit that led to a court-ordered agreement under which the state and federal governments are paying to replace pipes made from lead or galvanized steel — said she still cooks with bottled water. A federal judge gave officials until 2020 to replace water lines in 18,000 homes, and Mays is still waiting for hers to be revamped.
"My water stinks. It still burns to take a shower. There's no way they can say it's safe," Mays said.
More than 6,200 homes have had their pipes replaced so far, according to Snyder's announcement. In total, Michigan taxpayers have footed more than $350 million to the city, and the federal government has funded $100 million.
State lawmakers from Flint also expressed dismay at the announcement.
"It's beyond belief that the governor expects the folks in Flint to trust the government now, when they lied to our faces about lead in our water just a few years ago," Democratic Sen. Jim Ananich, that chamber's minority leader, said.
Democratic Rep. Sheldon Neeley said the city has his full backing should it decide to sue the state to demand free bottled water.
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher who was one of the earliest experts to call attention to Flint's contamination, said his independent testing shows the health crisis ended in the fall.
But he understands why residents are wary.
"You can't restore the trust that was lost from 2014 to 2015," he said. "Some Flint residents are never going to drink tap water again in Flint or anywhere. That's just their reality they're going to have to live with and deal with for the rest of their lives."