Elon Musk (left) and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver (right)
Photo: AP and Getty

Tech billionaire Elon Musk has been known to offer help, from donating solar batteries to Puerto Rico to building a tiny ‘submarine’ to rescue that Thai soccer team that was trapped in a cave. (It was never put to use.) The latest disaster to land on Musk’s radar? The water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

The predominantly black city of Flint has been reeling from a manmade water crisis since 2014 when the city switched its water source, exposing everyone to lead-contaminated water. Twelve people died as a result of a Legionnaires outbreak from the same water source switch. Given how many times the state and city told residents the water was safe when it wasn’t, people have a hard time trusting their water even today.

Now, Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, wants to help. He hopped on Twitter Wednesday to affirm his “commitment” to “fund fixing the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination.” And the city’s mayor is ready to work with him.

“This would be the first time for someone at [Musk’s] level to have taken interest in Flint and say, ‘I want to help,’” Mayor Karen Weaver told Earther.

The mayor’s office told Earther it has been in touch with Musk’s team for preliminary conversations about what this partnership or donation or whatever Musk is offering could look like. Weaver said she still hasn’t gotten Musk on the phone, but the plan is for that to happen by Friday.

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First on her agenda? To tell Musk what the city actually needs. Musk had tweeted about water filters, but the state already offers free filters to Flint residents. And Weaver said Musk’s team is listening, which is a good sign. If this billionaire wants to parachute into a complex environmental disaster, listening is an important first step.

The mayor wouldn’t mind some help with Flint’s ongoing pipe replacement. The city currently plans to replace all its lead service pipes by 2019, a feat that is expected to cost nearly $200 million (which the city is funding through a legal settlement and with state and federal help). “If we could finish that sooner, that would be a wonderful thing,” Weaver said. “This year would be great!”

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That’s one potential avenue. Economic development is another. Growing economic opportunities in this city, where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line, would immensely aid its recovery, Weaver said. The mayor hopes their conversation will include opportunities in tech, given Musk’s role in the sector. Her conversation with his team didn’t shy away from that option.

“They’re interested in tech,” she said. “They’re interested in workforce development. They’re interested in environmental justice issues. That’s what makes it so exciting.”

Weaver isn’t worried about a private entity intervening in public affairs: After all, the city’s accepted donations from major companies (like Nestlé) and celebrities (like Will Smith) before.

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But Musk’s enthusiasm has been known to lead to disappointment or, well, nothing at all, from failed projections for his auto company to a so-called self-sustaining city on Mars that still lacks solid plans. So until we see some results, Musk’s newfound commitment to solving Flint’s water crisis should be met with some skepticism.

Ultimately, trust lies at the heart of what’s going on in Flint. Residents are slowly regaining trust in city officials, Weaver said, but they’ve lost faith in the state of Michigan. Especially after it ended a free water bottle distribution program in April. The mayor doesn’t advise any of her constituents to drink the tap water, and she even seems wary about filtered water.

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“I use filtered water, as well, but most of the time, I’m using bottled water,” Weaver said.