STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, one year ago today, Flint, Michigan's mayor declared a state of emergency because of lead contaminating the drinking water. Americans responded with outrage and sympathy and water. They donated millions of gallons of water. One year later, donations have slowed, and unfiltered water is still considered unsafe to drink. Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reports.
STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: From their hometown streets to the halls of the nation's capital, Flint residents have spent 2016 demanding drinkable water.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Chanting) No agua.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) No vida (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Chanting) No agua.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) No vida.
CARMODY: But as the year nears its end, little has really changed. With frigid temperatures and flurries swirling around outside, the crowd inside Flint's downtown transit station ebbs and flows as buses come and go. At one end of the bus terminal, 10 large pallets of bottled water stand about four feet high. Keith Hill fills two bags with about 20 pounds of water bottles before making the long trek home. He hates doing this.
KEITH HILL: Yeah, it's pretty much bad because, you know, we can't do nothing about it, and they ain't doing nothing about it. And, you know, the city of Flint is going down. That's making it even worse.
CARMODY: Many here feel Flint's decades-old economic struggles have only been made worse by this crisis. And they say, despite all the attention, there's little progress. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver is also frustrated.
KAREN WEAVER: We're in year three, actually, of not being able to drink water. And that still makes no sense to me. And it shouldn't make sense to anybody else.
CARMODY: Flint's drinking water issues date back to 2014, when its source was switched to the Flint River. Mistakes treating the corrosive river water damaged pipes, which continue to leach lead. Despite tests showing lead levels declining, many here don't believe their tap water will ever be safe to drink again. Flint is getting some help, though. The state has spent more than $200 million here, distributing more than 3 million cases of bottled water and 145,000 water filters.
State officials are trying to convince Flint residents to use the filters, but many here just don't trust them. Last week, Congress finally approved $170 million in aid, though city officials say they'll need tens of millions more to replace the city's lead pipes. The state says about 600 pipes have been replaced so far this year. But at that rate, it would take decades to replace the more than 30,000 suspect lines. Michael McDaniel oversees that effort.
MICHAEL MCDANIEL: I mean, it was a matter of the city really lacking not just the finances, but because they lacked the finances for so long, they lacked the capacity.
CARMODY: While McDaniel expects the pace to speed up, it will still take years and cost more than $100 million. And then there are the legal battles. There are more than 400 civil lawsuits, some of them class actions. And let's not forget the criminal cases. Nine government employees have already been charged with tampering with evidence and willful neglect of office. Two have cut deals with the special prosecutor. More charges could be coming.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
CARMODY: At the end of a difficult year, some Flint residents are trying to just put the water crisis aside to get into the Christmas spirit.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the 2016 city of Flint tree-lighting ceremony.
CARMODY: A few days ago, a small crowd gathered outside Flint's city hall to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season. But even at a Christmas event, Flint's water crisis is not far away.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) This water situation, turn it over to Jesus. This water situation, turn it over to Jesus.
CARMODY: As a choir sang outside city hall, many in the crowd moved inside, where their kids could sit on Santa's lap, and where adults could do something they've been doing all year long - picking up some bottled water to take home. For NPR News, I'm Steve Carmody.
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