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As state-run water program ends, Flint churches look to fill void

One pastor told NBC News he believes Flint can become a "redeemed city" if the community comes together.
Image: Flint Water Crisis
People gather in front of a church before participating in a national mile-long march to highlight the push for clean water on February 19, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. FileBill Pugliano / Getty Images File

On Tuesday evening, all four of the city’s remaining water distribution centers shuttered — just days after Gov. Rick Snyder announced he would discontinue the state’s water distribution program.

Since Friday, thousands of families — many with young children who depend on bottled water to drink, bathe and wash their food — flocked to the centers to get what remained.

Now, nothing is left.

“There’s been 40 or 50 cars that have been lined up,” said Rob Butler, a head pastor for West Court Street Church of God, where one of the distribution centers had set up in the parking lot on Tuesday. “At least that many. Who knows how many turned away once they saw that huge line?”

Pastor Butler told NBC News his church will work with First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church on the south side of the city to collect private donations of water for Flint. He said one New York-based non-profit has already pledged to deliver a generous supply.

“They’re looking at bringing upwards of 20-some-odd semitrailers full of 1-liter box water to Flint,” he said, “and we will probably be a site that receives some of that from them along with a couple other churches.”

First Trinity reportedly gave out more than 3000 bottles on Tuesday and plans to provide water to residents all week.

One of the poorest communities in the U.S., Flint has depended on the state program since lead was discovered in its waterlines. Since 2000, the Rust Belt community lost 21 percent of its population — and valuable tax dollars — to its declining automotive industry. In 2011, it came under emergency management by the state. Three years later, to save money, officials switched the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The more acidic river water corroded waterlines, exposing thousands of residents — many of them children— to lead.

Thousands of waterlines have yet to be replaced

Since the crisis was uncovered, state and federal tax payers provided a combined $450 million to treat Flint’s water and update homes with new waterlines, among other services.

The government promised to replace lines in 18,000 homes by 2020. So far, lines in about 6,200 households have been replaced, according to a statement from the governor.

Retired General Motors worker Shirley Snowden, 60, lives in a home with old waterlines. Mostly seniors live in her neighborhood, she said. They previously depended on the Access and Functional Needs (AFN) program, a state and city-run program that delivered water to the elderly and disabled. Now, many of her neighbors, who lack both transportation and money, will have to get their own water, she explained.

“It’s going to really be terrible that they’re not going to continue passing this bottled water out [for] home delivery,” Snowden said.

Though thousands of waterlines have yet to be replaced, state officials say Flint’s water now meets federal standards.

For two years, its water tested the same or better than similar cities across the state, according to a news release from the governor. The statement informs families who are still concerned about lead to use water filters, which the state will continue to donate along with water testing kits.

It’s going to really be terrible that they’re not going to continue passing this bottled water out [for] home delivery.

Flint resident Shirley Snowden

“The governor has said all along that when the data show that the water quality had been restored, that that would be the time to end bottled water distribution, and we now are at that point after almost two years of testing that shows the quality has been improving consistently throughout that time,”Ari Adler, a spokesperson for the governor, told NBC News.

Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer who leads Virginia Tech's Flint Water Study team, confirmed that lead levels in Flint’s water have steadily declined.

“We’re going to remain vigilant and continue to monitor the water situation in Flint, but we have no basis for disputing the state’s claims, and in fact, all our data is now consistent with theirs,” he said.

But Snowden insists her water is still bad and that filters haven’t helped.

“When you let it sit for a minute in your glass, if you used it and put it in your glass — your filtered water — you can see some kind of fuzzy stuff around it,” Snowden explained, adding: “It looks like glue.”

Snowden said she never considered whether her filters may need to be replaced. According to the Flint, Michigan Filter Challenge Assessment, state-distributed water filters are effective at removing lead when properly installed and maintained”

Like Snowden, Flint resident Nayyirah Shariff also lives in a home that has hasn't been updated with new waterlines.

I see the possibility of a redeemed city. I think we can do it.

Flint pastor Rob Butler

Shariff, who directs the an advocacy group called Flint Rising, said she refuses to use tap water, even with a filter because she does not believe filters are 100 percent effective. She explained that sand-like particles, called “particulate lead,” can get stuck inside a faucet’s aerator.

She said it can be difficult to tell when filters need to be cleaned or replaced.

“I didn’t want to put myself at risk, thinking it was safe for me to use the water," Shariff said.

Local churches will try to answer the call

Pastor Butler’s church recently set up a donation page. He said dollars have already started to pour in from across the country.

“We even had neighbors walk in and write checks to us already for this, so I would assume we probably have somewhere between $700 to $800 dollars that’s been donated so far,” he said.

While the pastor is optimistic, he said whatever they manage to collect probably won’t be enough to quench the city’s 100,000 residents.

“As a volunteer organization, we’ll probably only be able to [provide water] one, maybe two days a week,” he said, “and it’s probably not going to get out the same volume of water [as the state’s program].”

Butler said he believes the community will solve its water woes, with or without the state. He noted that, as a pastor, it’s his job to be hopeful.

“I see the possibility of a redeemed city,” Butler said of Flint. “I think we can do it, but it takes the partnership, it takes the communities bound together [and] participating together.”

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