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Flint Residents Had Highest Water Bills In The U.S. Despite Lead Contamination

The average annual water bill in the Michigan town was more than double the national average for public agencies, researchers found.

Posted on February 17, 2016, at 3:41 p.m. ET

Carlos Osorio / AP

Residents of Flint, Michigan — where lead contamination has resulted in a major health crisis, federal investigations of city and state officials, and at least six lawsuits — paid more than double the national average for water service last year, according to a new report.

Advocacy group Food and Water Watch on Tuesday published the report, The State of Public Water in the United States, in which researchers found that as of January 2015, the average annual water bill in Flint was $864.32, compared to the national average of $316.20 for public water agencies.

“Flint is really alarming because the water was toxic, and the public lost that democratic control over the officials who make the decisions about water utility,” Mary Grant, campaign director for Food and Water Watch, told BuzzFeed News.

The study’s primary aim was to compare the costs of publicly- and privately-owned utility services. Researchers listed the 10 most and least expensive water service providers in 2015, citing figures based on January price points among the nation’s 500 largest community water systems.

Food and Water Watch / Via

The Flint contamination issue occurred after a state-appointed emergency manager in April 2014 ordered that the city switch its source of water from Detroit to the Flint River in an effort to save money and reduce debt.

Months later, residents and independent researchers began to notice discoloration and increased lead contamination levels in the water, which had been running through corroded pipes.

Paul Sancya / AP

The Flint River.

The state did not officially acknowledge the contamination and issue a health advisory until Oct. 1, 2015, despite several internal emails discussing mounting concerns over the issue.

Researchers noted that in August 2015, a judge ruled such steep increases to water service prices unlawful. He ordered a 35% reduction, and eliminated service fees and water disconnection penalties for residents with past due bills.

Flint is not the only city with significantly high water service fees. In Bellevue, Washington, residents paid $855.25 on average as of January, and the Padre Dam Municipal Water District in California charged an average $826.94.

Grant attributed other areas' high service prices to the fact that they employed "middle men" to distribute the water from the source to its customers, which could drive up prices.

“Flint is an indictment of an emergency management system treating water as a business instead of a public service,” Grant said.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.