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Flint Water: Federal Judge Orders Decision On Safe Water Source

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Flint, Mich., a federal judge has given officials a deadline of next Monday to decide on the city's long-term source of drinking water. As Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reports, the decision about where Flint gets its water is tethered not only to the city's ongoing water troubles, but also to its contentious politics.

STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: I'm standing outside the Flint water plant. These brick and concrete buildings that spread over a few acres have sat largely unused since the city's failed experiment in getting its tap water from the Flint River ended two years ago. That water was not properly treated, creating serious problems, including high levels of lead in the drinking water. Despite some improvement, protests over Flint's drinking water persist.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Flint lives matter. Flint lives matter.

CARMODY: Fixing Flint's troubled water system is a slow process made slower by disagreements between city officials sparked by election year politics and a recall election targeting Flint's mayor. For the past two years, Flint has been getting its water on a temporary basis from Detroit's water system, the Great Lakes Water Authority. Earlier this year, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver unveiled a plan to keep that water flowing from Detroit, a plan she touted again this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAREN WEAVER: And it is my hope that we can soon move forward with implementing this recommendation so that we can concentrate our efforts on providing safe, reliable, affordable and tap drinkable water.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

WEAVER: That's what we started with...

CARMODY: The deal with Flint's water system would not only continue sending treated water to Flint, but would also free up millions of dollars in federal and state aid to repair Flint's damaged water system. But so far, Flint City Council has refused to approve it. City Councilman Scott Kincaid, who is running for mayor, says the new contract includes an annual 2 to 4 percent water rate hike with other possible increases for Flint residents, residents who are already paying some of the nation's highest water bills.

SCOTT KINCAID: If you're going to have serious surgery and you go to the doctor, you want a second opinion. And that's all we're asking for for the residents of the city of Flint, to get a second opinion so that their water rate increases don't necessarily have to go up every year.

CARMODY: In June, the state sued Flint in an attempt to force the City Council to agree to the 30-year contract. A federal judge ordered the two sides into mediation. But this week, U.S. District Judge David Lawson's patience apparently came to an end. He called the City Council's failure of leadership breathtaking and ordered it to decide whether to sign the contract or not in the next few days. Flint's latest water misstep comes as the city is entangled in an increasingly acrimonious recall election against Mayor Weaver. And her leading challenger is City Councilman Kincaid, who is spearheading opposition to the contract. Resident Florlisa Fowler would like the city's residents themselves to get a chance to vote on the water contract.

FLORLISA FOWLER: We're ultimately going to be the ones paying for this one way or another with our health, with our pipes, with our money out of our pocket. I honestly think that it would be a good idea to have the residents vote on this.

CARMODY: But that's unlikely to happen. Meanwhile, if the City Council does not approve the long-term contract by Monday, decisions over Flint's long-term water source could reside with a federal judge. For NPR News, I'm Steve Carmody in Flint. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.