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3 Years After Lead Crisis, Flint Residents Still Need Water Filters


Three years ago today, Flint, Mich., switched drinking water sources and that led to a public health crisis. Now, teams are going door to door in Flint to install water filters in residents' homes. Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith talked with some of the people trying to make sure residents have safe drinking water.

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: It's unseasonably warm and sunny for spring in Michigan when I meet Aaron Gates. He's still sporting his uniform, though - thick, black waterproof overalls and a neon green work vest - and he's sweating.

AARON GATES: It's protective because, you know, I am warm but a dog ain't going to penetrate this. I'm ready.

SMITH: You ever had a dog come after you?

GATES: Yeah. We had a door - a pit bull actually bust through the door. He looked at me and went after my partner. Yeah. He threw his hands up and just didn't move. Where we going, Chameil?

SMITH: Chameil Howard is Gates's partner today. They're one of about 80 CORE teams. CORE stands for Community Outreach and Education. All here are Flint residents who were unemployed. Chameil Howard says the occasional dog won't scare her away from a good paying job, especially as a single parent - five kids.

At least 18,000 corroded water pipes are getting ripped out of the ground and replaced. That's part of the long-term fix but it's going to take three more years to finish the job. And all that construction work can disturb other water pipes nearby, causing lead levels to spike. The faucet filters CORE teams have for residents are certified to remove lead but many prefer bottled water.

But free water distribution will end soon, so even though they're temporary, getting faucet filters installed inside every Flint home is paramount. But it's a daunting task. Karry Pitkin, who drives the team's van, keeps a close eye on her coworkers, slowly following them as they walk the streets. Once, she says she watched a guy pull in his driveway just as one of her teams was knocking on his door.

KARRY PITKIN: Well, they got those bright green vests on. You know that they're not there to do something to you. Well, the guy got out of the car with a gun pulled on him, said you know you're in the hood. What are you doing on my property? They said we're here for the water response. And, of course, he wanted a filter. (Laughter) I would have told him hell no, son of a gun, you just pulled a gun on me. Hasta la vista (laughter).

SMITH: We did have a dog scare later, nothing major but it did send us scrambling for Pitkin's van. But no guns and no one was hurt. And I got to say, the vast majority of the time the work these CORE teams do isn't nearly so dramatic. It's a lot of walking and a lot of patience. Last month, CORE teams knocked on more than 40,000 doors - 40,000 - reaching people in about half and circling back to those they missed.


SMITH: Aaron Gates and Chameil Howard today knock on doors for more than 45 minutes before they find someone home and willing to answer. Even then, some people say I already have a filter and no thanks. They don't care to have a stranger come into their kitchen or bathroom to make sure it works. While the filters are designed to be user friendly, all the CORE teams I tagged along with found problems once they get into people's homes.

GATES: Once we're in here, we turn the water on and check and see. And it's red. It's flashing red, so it needs to be changed.

SMITH: Gates doesn't know how long that red light has been flashing, neither does the homeowner. He's satisfied when he replaces the cartridge and the light flashes green. Sometimes the teams find the filters won't fit on the faucets. They order residents a new one on the state's dime just so the filter will fit. Temporary fix or not, these teams and faucet filters are likely going to be the way of life in Flint for some time to come. For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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