Elon Musk has had a rough summer, largely of his own making, but he still found time to honor a commitment to clean water in Flint, Michigan, he had made on Twitter on July 11, 2018. While it seemed to be an idle response to a Twitter user using an obvious attempt at reverse psychology—”NO WAY you could help”—Musk took it seriously.
Musk initially offered to pass along responses from Flint residents whose test results showed unsafe water in order and arrange for the individual installation of filters. He went several steps further, however. On Oct. 5, the Flint Community Schools district announced that Musk and his Musk Foundation had donated nearly $500,000 to provide ultraviolet filtration systems for all 12 of the school buildings in the system and the district’s headquarters building by January 2019. The system will remove lead and kill off bacteria for drinking water, allowing students to use drinking fountains and fill up water bottles.
In a statement, Derrick Lopez, Flint Community Schools Superintendent, said, “We are deeply grateful for the generosity and the budding partnership between Flint Community Schools, the Musk Foundation and Elon Musk. The new water filtration systems will be instrumental in helping our students return to the normalcy of what should be a fundamental right: having access to safe, clean water from water fountains in their school.”
The district thanked Musk and his foundation on Twitter, and Musk replied, “You’re most welcome. Hope to do more to help in the future.”
Musk also lived up to his original tweet, providing direct support for some residents, including the person who first asked him to help.
Feel-good stories—or at least “don’t feel so bad” stories—were overwhelmed last week, especially by Musk’s own news about him tweaking the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Twitter, following a tentative settlement between him, Tesla, and the agency about a tweet he made earlier this summer about taking Tesla private.
Tens of thousands of old pipes containing lead are being replaced throughout Flint, but it’s likely to take until at least 2020. While state authorities say the water is now safe to drink, Michigan continues to provide filters. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician critical in exposing the water contamination, tells people to continue to use bottled or filtered water, in part because the pipe replacement is stirring up lead as well.
Flint’s water system remains a flashpoint at the intersection of race, global trade, rust-belt politics, environmental safety, government austerity, and state-imposed bankruptcy administration. A majority black city, Flint suffered a significant impact decades ago as General Motors reduced operations within the city, and then shut plants in around the town.
The water crisis began four years ago, when the city shifted water sources while under bankruptcy administration to reduce expenses while failing to apply corrosion inhibitors, which reduce the release of heavy metals (notably lead) from the old pipes that were prevalent throughout the economically depressed city. An outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease has also been linked to the water switch. A number of officials at local and state levels were charged with crimes such as willful neglect office and involuntary manslaughter.
While problems first became apparent in 2014, it wasn’t until January 2016 that the governor declared a state of emergency for Flint’s county. While water tested starting in early 2017 showed lead levels had dropped to safe levels, ongoing testing in schools found that some samples exceeded thresholds]believed to be safe.