Hi reddit!

My short bio: I am Ron Fonger, reporter for The Flint Journal and MLive for the past 20 years. PROOF!

I’ve been writing about Flint’s water problems for nearly two years. Why am I doing this? Flint’s water problems (lead, TTHM and bacteria) didn’t start when they became a subject of national concern and debate attracting the attention of folks like u/MMFlint, u/bernie-sanders, and u/RevJesseJackson. They’ve been unfolding since the city started using the Flint River as the city’s water source in April 2014. We can talk about how this water crisis unfolded, who dropped the ball, and what’s being done to fix the problems.

For those of you not familiar with the current crisis here in Flint here’s a good video (alternative link for the video on Facebook for those who want to skip the ad) that breaks down the situation in 3-ish minutes. You can also find all the reports I’ve published on the crisis here.

You may have seen some of the photos captured by my coworker, Photographer Jake May, on the front page last week. Check out more of his moving images documenting how this crisis has weighed on our community. The folks from Virginia Tech who are behind the independent testing did an ama last month too, it has some great info if you happened to miss it.

It’s been a crazy day with Michigan Governor Snyder expected to release his emails related to the crisis today, but I’ll do my best to answer any questions you may have on this issue over the next couple hours. Thanks for having me.

EDIT: Thanks for all your questions. I have to duck out and catch up with some other stories in the works but feel free to keep posting questions this evening and I’ll check in when I can to answer them for you.

Comments: 143 • Responses: 48  • Date: 

andrewtdc24 karma

Michigan expat here. My limited understanding of the problem leads me to believe that it was an extreme failing at the local level. The mayor going so far as to drink the water to show it was potable.

I'm having a hard time understanding where Governor Snyder's alleged criminal culpability comes into play. Is there a smoking gun that points to an extreme level of negligence on his part? Or is this an easy way for the left to mud sling?

And please note, I'm not a right winger. Just a moderate trying to get a real feel for the reality of what is taking place in my home state...

ronfonger23 karma

Your story about the mayor is absolutely true. I also witnessed the former DPW director for the city drink a bottle of water that a resident had brought to city hall to show it was fine. Here's what makes Flint unusual in terms of its relationship to the state: Flint was run by a string of emergency managers from 2011 until mid-2015. The managers were appointed by the governor, using state law that allows him to essentially replace the mayor and city council after finding a financial emergency exists. So Flint had a state-appointed emergency manager and a state Department of Environmental Quality enforcing requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

outcomes1 karma

The EFMs were all locals and heavily involved in Flint politics. If Snyder is to be faulted for anything, it is his willingness to allow the Flint political machine to keep its seat at the big kids table after decades of neglect.

ronfonger9 karma

Each of the four emergency managers had some connection to Flint but I wouldn't say they were all heavily involved in city politics. The last EM, for example -- Jerry Ambrose -- worked in Flint after the financial emergency was declared but was anything but a fixture here.

ronfonger6 karma

Darnell Earley, now the Detroit Public Schools EM, also served a stint as Flint EM. Earley had worked in Flint previously but had spent at least as much time professionally working in Saginaw.

scobro9 karma

Since this has been a local story for so long, are you surprised this has suddenly taken off nationally? What do you think grabbed people's attention this late in the game?

ronfonger11 karma

I think this story gained traction after Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha's study showed the rising levels of lead in the blood of young children here. When the state essentially endorsed her science, the attention soared.

frankormond9 karma

It's been reported that switching to a new water supply won't fix the problem. At this point, what's the endgame?

ronfonger12 karma

A new water supply won't fix the condition of Flint's aging water distribution system. It will, however, result in much less corrosive water being run through water pipes, home service lines and indoor plumbing. The steps that have been announced for Flint so far have mostly involved efforts to provide immediate assistance like bottled water to Flint residents but there have been discussions about potentially replacing all lead service lines in the city.

Shabe5 karma

How many miles of pipe is that? Has someone speculated how long that might take?

ronfonger12 karma

It's about 74 miles of pipe. As of earlier this month, there were just 17 miles left to be built. The goal for the pipeline to reach Flint is June, but it's weather-dependent.

ihateslowdrivers6 karma

Hello from a fellow Michigander!

My question is why is Michigan the best state in the union?

ronfonger15 karma

Well, we do have a lot of great craft breweries.

gravityinplay6 karma

With corrosion to old piping being the cause of lead poisoning, will better water sources prevent the metal from leeching into water? My experience with metals leads me to believe that once corrosion begins, it is really hard to stop.

ronfonger5 karma

Mark Edwards, the professor whose research in Flint first pointed to a lead-in-water problem, has said the city's pipes should heal and the city is boosting the amount of phosphates in the water that's being purchased from Detroit. That said, there have been warnings about the potential for problems with lead scale breaking loose from water pipes in the future from the U.S. EPA: http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2015/11/new_epa_report_warns_of_potent.html

CMCoolidge3 karma

Concerning the healing of the protective layer in the pipes now that the water supply has switched back to Detroit, I read yesterday that this could take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years.

Is this a solution the city is looking at rather than the seemingly impossible option of replacing all the old lead pipes, and how safe would the water be afterward?

ronfonger5 karma

The city is trying to build up that protective layer in the pipes that was damaged by the river water.

ronfonger6 karma

In addition to the phosphates that have been added to the water from the old Detroit water system, the city has been adding even more phosphates once the pre-treated water arrives here. It's all an effort to re-coat the underground pipes and reduce the potential for lead leaching.

ronfonger6 karma

I don't know how long it will take to rebuild that protective layer. Marc Edwards, the professor from Virginia Tech university who has spent time testing Flint's water, said in December that water could have lead levels that meet federal guidelines by this month.

kvelec43265 karma

Not trying to start an argument or anything but until recently I lived in the 48504 zip code on University Ave for 3 years (right by Kettering University). Even prior to the switch there was complaints about discoloration of the water. It did increase after the switch though. Also to add for information to anyone who reads this. The switch from Detroit water was not an unpopular one for many in Flint because we were told that water bills would drop but they did not. With two people in the house for water and sewer I was paying $115 a month after and about $120 prior. The water at my house was tested and came back within range and I never experienced any discolorations. Like stated the problem arose from more corrosive water flowing through the old infrastructure. Also stated that MANY owners in the area have just abandoned their houses and not paying taxes. Not that Flint has been up on doing infrastructure updates but when an area has one or two house on an entire block that have residents there isn't a huge need to replace the mains to that area.


So should Snyder take most of the blame? No. There is a problem in Flint but it stems from infrastructure not being updated. Though that is a major problem in the entire US and that points at government officials of every level. These officials have never focused on things of this sort because the voters never made it a priority and wouldn't support any tax hikes or spending cuts to fund it. IMO the biggest problem from this is how slow officials have responded.


TL;DR- 1) Infrastructure throughout the entire US is horrible because voters don't see an importance on funding for it.

2) Government officials are slow at responding to most everything

ronfonger2 karma

Governor Snyder made a similar point in his State of the State address, talking about the issue of aging water distribution systems in Flint and elsewhere in Michigan (and presumably around the country). One key difference though: Standard operating procedure is to treat water to make it less corrosive.

foeticidal5 karma

Based on everything that you know, how do you expect this to affect future business/residential development in Flint? Do you expect to see much of the population migrate away from the city in the coming years?

Thanks for doing this AMA.

ronfonger4 karma

People are concerned about how this might affect economic development and population, and this community has already been through a lot. Our population dropped below 100,000 people for the first time since the 1920s in 2014. The city has been losing thousands of people yearly for decades, accordin to the Census. This isn't going to help improve those numbers in the short term.

Kikuchiy05 karma

Is anyone (police or journalists) investigating the break-in of the office at city Hall that contained files pertinent to the city's water?

ronfonger6 karma

The latest information we have is that the investigation remains in the hands of the Flint Police Department. If you're not familiar with the story, my colleague Gary Ridley wrote this story on the break-in: http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2016/01/city_hall_office_containing_wa.html

Lhtfoot5 karma

In my opinion... This is how a city slowly but surely says, "Get the fuck out, so we can bulldoze this place!" Am I wrong?

ronfonger3 karma

I haven heard more than one person suggest that there could be ulterior motives like that for what's happened. I haven't seen any evidence of that -- just the mistakes that were made and which seem so obvious now.

dmac2264 karma

It's been said by some that the situation isn't as bad as it has been made out to be (like not all water is coming out rust colored and dirty). Is this affecting all residents of Flint? Or is the problem more concentrated in some areas while not affecting others nearly as much?

ronfonger7 karma

Researchers from Virginia Tech indicated their testing showed high levels of lead in water all around the city, but there are areas where the levels of lead and blood lead levels are highest. A mid-section of the city showed the percentage of infants and young children with elevated blood lead levels tripled after the change in the city's water source. The zip codes 48503 and 48504 had the highest blood lead levels. Earlier this month, the state said its testing has identified 43 Flint residents with elevated blood lead levels, including 23 children younger than age 6. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha has said those numbers minimize damage that may have been done to infants and children who no longer have lead in their blood but who have been permanently damaged by it. Lead only shows in the blood for about 30 days, according to the doctor.

ronfonger4 karma

Here's a link to a map of Flint that shows ZIP codes where doctors found the highest percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels.

dmac2262 karma

Curious how does that correlate with SES demographics? Is this a poorer area of town or one that simply has older infrastructure which was affected by the lead leaching at a greater level?

ronfonger7 karma

It's all over the map, as far as demographics are concerned. The 48503 ZIP code, for example, includes one of the more affluent parts of town. It seems to be an issue of infrastructure.

The_Literal_Doctor3 karma

I am unsure how the distribution of water works exactly- but I will say that the majority of central/downtown businesses are all within 48502 (I work here)- an area with 0% of samples testing for lead.

In terms of the more residential areas of the city, I completely agree with Ron's analysis below. Seems random.

ronfonger2 karma

There were issues with lead in water at the University of Michigan-Flint campus in February 2015, but officials there determined the problem was tied to indoor plumbing and its reaction to the water.

RobieWan4 karma

Ron, What do you think about the blame game that is taking place? It has to be taking away from solutions to the issue.

Personally I believe this is a failure at the local level going back a long long time. But, at this point the city just needs help to get this situation resolved.

That said. Flint has a lot of nasty issues that have nothing to do with the water. People seemed to have forgotten this. Fixing the water issue, while necessary, will not resolve the rest of the issues.

ronfonger2 karma

That's true. The city has struggled with its crime rate, loss of population and with high unemployment for many years.

realtime2lose4 karma

They aren't really expecting people to pay their water bills are they?

ronfonger5 karma

A lot of people are not paying their water bills. In November, the city said about 60 percent of customers were past-due in paying their bills.

823644 karma

What are some good things about Flint? I only hear bad things.

ronfonger2 karma

I'll speak for myself but here are some that come to mind for me:

ronfonger5 karma

There's a strong collection of hospitals and universities, including the University of Michigan's Flint campus, where my daughter got her undergrad degree. The people here are generally kind-hearted but also tough as nails -- witness how they refused to buckle despite this water crisis. Downtown development is ticking up with investments in some properties that have been dormant for decades. We have an awesome farmer's market and you can get a great hamburger at the Torch or Halo Burger.

KingEuronIIIGreyjoy3 karma

West Bloomfield native here. Where are you getting your water from now? From Detroit, the Great Lakes, donated water, or what? Also, Wolverines or Spartans?

ronfonger2 karma

My water is coming from a well (I live in a house that's been in my family since 1940) in Flushing Township, just west of Flint. The water I drink in Flint is coming from Lake Huron through the Great Lakes Water Authority, which used to be the Detroit water system. There's been plenty of donated water (more than 18,500 cases since Jan. 9) and 46,000 lead-clearing faucet filters distributed. And I'm more partial to the Spartans. I have one daughter at Michigan State University now, and another daughter at Western Michigan University.

DavidHarrisOrlando3 karma

Ron Fonger! You rock, man. Is there ANY safe water in the city? Ive read that some parts of the city are worse than others. Also: The coverage has been focused on lead's impact on children, and rightly so. But what is the effect on adults? Keep up the good reporting.

ronfonger5 karma

The areas with lead service lines leading to homes appear to be the most susceptible in the city to leaching. Flint officials have estimated that about half the homes in Flint have lead service lines but the city hasn't been able to pinpoint -- with a map or other tool -- which homes those are. Flint officials say their records are outdated -- with lead service line information stored on about 45,000 index cards: http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2015/10/flint_official_says_data_on_lo.html

Guj193 karma

How culpible do you feel the City of Detroit is in denying sale of water after a year, not the three Flint needed to make the transition to Lake Huron water? This certainly forced some hasty decisions to be made.

ronfonger8 karma

The city of Flint's emergency manager could have negotiated a short-term agreement to continue buying water from Detroit but chose not to. Emergency managers have said they expected to save millions in a relatively short period of time by using Flint River water.

Guj193 karma

Wouldn't the existing contract have continued for the three remaining years to complete the transition? Reports make it seem as though Detroit withheld the sale of water because Flint was seeking an alternative.

ronfonger4 karma

Detroit did cancel it's old contract to sell Flint water. It gave Flint a one-year notice. However, Genesee County (of which Flint is the county seat) was also cancelled and it negotiated a new, short-term contract to continue buying lake water.

otherbill2 karma

Given the scope and severity of this disaster, are any criminal charges being considered?

ronfonger3 karma

Federal prosecutors are investigating Flint's water crisis but haven't commented beyond that. Last week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette also announced an investigation of the water crisis. Since Schuette's announcement there have been questions raised about his ability to carry out such an investigation. Attorneys in class action lawsuits against the state said this week that Schuette's office has the responsibility to represent the governor in civil actions that name him and the state of Michigan.

Here's a link to our coverage of U.S. attorney's involvement:http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2016/01/us_attorneys_office_investigat.html

And the Michigan attorney general's interest: http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2016/01/michigan_attorney_general_inve.html

TuckRaker2 karma

How did it take so long to figure out something was wrong? Wasn't their discolouration, smell, etc., from the beginning of the switch?

ronfonger4 karma

There were complaints about the quality of the water almost immediately after the city's water source was changed to the Flint River in April 2014.

ronfonger4 karma

We first reported on elevated lead levels in early September (http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2015/09/new_testing_shows_flint_water.html) But long before that, I was writing about problems with bacteria and elevated levels of total trihalomethanes.

TuckRaker4 karma

So, essentially, officials knew something was wrong and continued with status quo?

ronfonger6 karma

The state and the city spent months defending the quality and safety of the water instead of making the moves that are happening today.

Eugene_Goat1 karma

What's your favourite kind of nut?

ronfonger2 karma

Hmmm... I like them all but my favorite is probably the humble peanut.

Eugene_Goat1 karma

The answers that really matter. Seriously though, that water situation is just the worst. How close are we realistically to seeing that change?

ronfonger3 karma

The eyes of the world are on Flint again. I don't think it's going to be easy for anyone to walk away from this water crisis but I can't predict how close we are to having a permanent fix.

Jaker8101 karma

Have you heard anything more in terms of water shutoffs? Movement on the class action suits filed?

ronfonger1 karma

We are still trying to get clarity on water shutoff notices. In November, the city announced it was sending out 1,800 notices, threatening to shut off water on over-due accounts. The city finance director said the notices stopped during the holidays but were starting up again -- but a statement from Mayor Karen Weaver's office this week says, "We have not issued shut off notices since the beginning of December and the utility billing department has been given no instruction to resume at this time."

SKatieRo1 karma

What does your water taste like?

ronfonger2 karma

In our office in downtown Flint, it tastes fine. We have lead-clearing filters in place.

outcomes1 karma

Have the Flint residents that you've talked with expressed animosity towards any specific civil servants or elected officials within the municipality? What about at the state level?

ronfonger3 karma

There has been a lot of anger with the state emergency manager system and the governor. We've seen that at a lot of rallies and marches and demonstrations. Former mayor Dayne Walling also got a lot of animosity but people seemed to get that out of their system when they voted him out of office in November.

rodhill1 karma

How is this playing out in the Real Estate market? I can't imagine anyone with kids buying ANY house in the city.

ronfonger1 karma

I don't have first-hand information about that. Flint hasn't been a high-demand area for homes for many years -- we have had thousands of property owners abandoned their homes before the water crisis. I can't imagine this helping though.

torgis301 karma

It is pretty well-known that exposure to lead, especially in children, can lead to health and behavioral issues later in life.

My question is: have there been any short-term, immediate, or critical health issues that have arisen from the water crisis? Or is the damage being measured in terms of future problems that we will eventually need to deal with?

ronfonger5 karma

As for the lead, the health concerns that I'm aware of have been about the impact of the lead exposure on young children in the future. Lead is a toxic metal that may cause health effects such as behavioral problems and learning disabilities. Last week, we found out the state is also investigating the potential that an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease here may be connected to the city's water supply, but we don't know yet. The Legionnaires' outbreak resulted in 10 deaths.

torgis302 karma

The Legionnaires' outbreak resulted in 10 deaths.

I live in Michigan and this is the first I'm hearing about this. Why is nobody talking about it? I found some information on the CDC site but I haven't heard mention of it on the news or in the Freep at all.

ronfonger4 karma

First, many people are just getting their arms around the lead in water issue. Second, the link between the Flint River and Legionnaires' disease hasn't been established -- just suspected. Third, the issue just came to light last week, but we are writing about it: http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2016/01/documents_show_agencies_knew_o.html

DetroitKhalil1 karma

Who's the most handsome co-worker you've ever worked with?

ronfonger3 karma

Gosh Khalil, I'd have to say that would obviously be Dave Harris.

BoerboelFace1 karma

How was your day?

ronfonger2 karma

Thanks for asking. My day today is a lot like yesterday and the day before -- very busy, but very interesting.

magicmagininja1 karma

meek or fifty?

ronfonger1 karma

Well, Meek Mill has said he's donating to help out Flint. Detroit-based rapper Big Sean also pledged help to the city during what he called a "tragedy." http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2016/01/rapper_meek_mill_big_sean_pled.html

ncasal1 karma

Late here and not sure you're still taking questions, but I just stumbled on this one from a Mother Jones reporter, and I think it's a good one: Why is the water still contaminated even though the city switched back to Detroit water already? Is it cause the pipes are so corroded? http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/01/why-flints-water-still-unsafe-or-it

ronfonger2 karma

Professor Marc Edwards, who has spent a lot of time studying Flint water, has said the all-clear signal should not be given yet because of the residual damage that was done to the city's transmission pipes by the river water. The Genesee County Health Department and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have each said people should not drink unfiltered water yet.

ishabad0 karma

What can President Obama do to help you folk? Who do you think should be the next president?


ronfonger2 karma

Gov. Rick Snyder thinks President Obama could do more, He's appealing the president's decision denying a federal disaster declaration for Flint. Obama declared an emergency in Flint instead, but the governor's appeal claims the severity of the disaster warrants additional support from the federal government.

justscottaustin0 karma

Why have the people of Flint not sued both their city council and the state of Michigan for providing the emergency managers who had such a large role in this fiasco?

ronfonger2 karma

The state and the governor, the city and various city employees are all named in class action lawsuits filed since November.

That_Guy_JR-3 karma

NOT OP, but:

The city council is probably not to blame. They have an emergency financial manager (EFM) who was basically Snyder's appointed dictator. (Granholm had apparently done the same thing, but this just speaks to a democratic and accountability deficit.)

outcomes5 karma

That's not true.

Flint's water problems are the result of a completely predictable failure on the part of the municipality to provide adequate services to its residents over the span of decades. In a city where schools functionally resemble minimum security prisons, where roads are uniformly neglected, where the police and fire departments are broken, and where corrupt municipal officials have been mismanaging for decades, is it any surprise that the water infrastructure is a disaster as well?

After a certain point it is incumbent upon voters to elect competent local leadership. Detroit elected Mike Duggan and since then, things have only improved. There's no reason Flint can't make a similar leadership change.

That_Guy_JR0 karma

I'm basing this off Rachel Maddow's interview with the mayor of another city in MI under an EFM, but apparently once you're under an EFM, your votes don't matter any more. Also worth noting is that this did not happen in a vacuum - decades of deindustrialization and middle-class migration decimate a tax base. The same thing happened in Camden, NJ and led to the same outcome (well, at least as far as emergency management). Observing from across the river, it seems that is being handled much more competently.

EDIT: I did not downvote you. I believe this is a legitimate point, even if it puts the cart before the horse.

outcomes3 karma

I'd appreciate a link to that interview, sounds like a lot of misinformation is being spread, particularly by officials in other cities looking to score easy points against state-imposed fiscal discipline.

The Michigan EFM law is not gubernatorial dictatorship, and a long chain of events need to occur before the state is legally allowed intervene, at which point a series of consent agreements and review boards stand in the way of politicized meddling.

It's impossible to untangle all the ridiculous lapses in governance that have happened. Here's one example: when Flint went into financial emergency, Snyder appointed a local who was deeply involved in Flint politics instead of sending in the cavalry from Lansing. This was done mainly as a sign of good faith to the Flint political establishment, an indicator that even though copious illegal activity was taking place, Snyder was not interested in collecting scalps.

The new EFM, Michael Brown, was a Flint native, Democrat, and former Gennessee County Commissioner. Brown appointed one of his buddies, Howard Croft (Flint native, Democrat, union electrician), to run Flint's Department of Public Works. Croft was forced to resign last November. He maintains that he and his staff did a good job running DPW. He now runs a "renewable energy" company funded mostly by public grants.

That_Guy_JR-2 karma

Democrat and Republican really doesn't matter.

This write-up says that the imposition on the EFMs was arbitrary and racially based (incendiary claim). It goes through a whole host of wrongs, in detail, but lays the blaim squarely at the EFM's door.

The interview was with Lansing's mayor, Virg Bernero, before this link (of Michael Moore), I believe on either Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell, or Chris Hayes on Jan 19th (yesterday). The link is not up yet. I will update the post if and when they put it up.

outcomes1 karma

Democrat and Republican really doesn't matter.

Political machines hijacked the Democratic Party apparatus in Detroit and Flint decades ago. Party politics matters in Michigan.

ronfonger1 karma

There have been issues with the city's finances for decades so you can make the case that Flint created the situation that allowed for the finding of a financial emergency -- and the appointment of emergency managers -- by the governor starting in 2011. What's not really in question is that the authority to make decisions and spend money to prepare the city to use the Flint River as a water source rested exclusively with the emergency managers.

gbimmer-1 karma

You seem to be placing blame singularly on a Republican governor but ignoring any Democrat wrongdoing. What do you think of this report that says the tests that showed lead 6 months ago were buried by an Obama appointee?


Is political bias in reporting normal for you?

ronfonger3 karma

I'm not blaming. I'm reporting on what we've learned to date. The EPA has its own connections to this crisis. It had information months ago about rising lead levels in Flint, but the feds weren't running the city at the time either.

gbimmer0 karma

They (EPA) weren't but they do have oversight on all municipal water systems. They avoided their responsibility in attacking the problem by burying it.

It certainly seems like the media is focusing their attention on the one Republican involved here when the blame should be on many, many people over many, many years.

The governor didn't install lead-jointed pipes. That was done over many decades under Democrat control.

The solution, by the way (if you want to be a hero feel free to push it) is to re-line the pipe. That can be done for far cheaper than replacing it. There are lots of companies that can do it. They basically stick a PVC balloon down the pipe, inflate it and harden it in place. That seals the pipe and will provide a barrier against leaching metals.

Edit: here's some examples of relining companies:



18 years in the water and wastewater industry here.

ronfonger4 karma

Thanks for the suggestion. Maybe relining the pipes will become part of the long-term plan. I think the state has been in the forefront because of its role in running the city as this crisis unfolded and because the DEQ in particular was so dismissive of those who questioned the quality and safety of the water early on. There's no doubt that the city's infrastructure was in rough shape while Flint was still under local control. We have systems like roads, water and sewer that were built for a city once twice the size it is today and Flint's tax base and property values have been falling for many years.