Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to resign over Flint’s lead-contaminated water supply, calling it “one of the worst public health crises in the modern history of this country.”

In an exclusive interview Saturday with The Detroit News, Sanders said Snyder’s multiple apologies for his administration allowing Flint water to go untreated for preventing corrosion of lead-soldered pipes “is just not good enough.”

“And I think the governor has got to take the responsibility and say, ‘You know what, my administration was absolutely negligent and a result of that negligence, many children may suffer for the rest of their lives and the right thing to do is to resign,’” Sanders said in a telephone interview from Vermont.

State health officials have confirmed 43 cases of elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint residents, who complained since April 2014 that the brownish Flint River smelled and caused rashes. Lead can cause irreversible brain and developmental damage in children and infants who ingest it through water or lead-based paint.

“What we are looking at in Flint is one of the worst public health crises in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said. “We don’t know what the exact outcome will be, but thousands of children have been poisoned. And the poisoning may have long-term impacts of their health and the future of their lives.”

Sanders has not yet visited Michigan as a presidential candidate.

A spokesman for Snyder said Saturday that the Republican governor is focused on securing federal aid to assist Flint residents and government institutions in the recovering after he declared a state of emergency in Genesee County on Jan. 4 and deployed the National Guard to Flint this week to assist in distributing bottled water and filters.

“The best thing for the people of Flint is that every effort is focused on solving this emergency, getting the aid needed to help the residents, and ensuring that clean drinkable water is restored to the city,” Snyder press secretary Dave Murray said Saturday in an email to The Detroit News. “Political statements and finger pointing from political candidates not involved in finding solutions for Flint, only serve to distract from solving this crisis.”

Sanders is in a close race in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire against Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who has been sharply critical this week of Snyder’s handling of Flint’s water crisis.

Appearing on the CBS Sunday talk show “Face The Nation,” Clinton said Snyder should have sought federal emergency assistance “weeks ago." But the former secretary of state did not go as far as Sanders did in calling for Snyder to leave office just one year into his second term.

“I don’t want to get caught up in the political back-and-forth here, I want to help the people of Flint,” Clinton said. “And I particularly want a comprehensive health analysis of what’s happened to these children.”

Obama declared an emergency in Flint on Saturday, freeing up $5 million in immediate federal aid for the state’s water crisis response.

Snyder is planning to ask the state Legislature as early as this week for an unspecified amount of additional funding for Flint. The money could come from a $575 million surplus the state is sitting on, Snyder’s budget director said Thursday.

In October, lawmakers approved Snyder’s request for $6 million to pay half of the cost to switch Flint back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water source. The Flint-based Mott Foundation donated $4 million and Flint had to chip in $2 million toward the cost.

Sanders said the state-appointed emergency manager money-saving use of Flint River water was shortsighted given the long-term damage caused to Flint’s water pipeline and residents’ health.

“It just tells me that we have a lot of these anti-government folks running administrations all over this country who could care less about the well being of our children, whether it’s in education, whether it’s in health, whether it’s environmentally,” Sanders said. “It’s just unacceptable.”

“You don’t save money while poisoning our children, that is is not acceptable.”

Sanders noted Flint is a majority African American city whose residents “don’t have a whole lot of money.”

“It’s an outrage and it’s unacceptable and I think the governor has got to accept this responsibility and do the right thing, and that is to resign,” Sanders told The News.

Snyder has apologized for the state Department of Environmental Quality’s mistakes in not requiring Flint to add a chemical to the river water that helps prevent corrosion.

“I think the resignation would show that he really understands the extent of the crisis that he caused,” Sanders said.

Snyder has said he didn’t become aware of elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint residents until Oct. 1, even after his office quietly coordinated in August the distribution of 1,500 faucet filters that remove lead from water.

In Flint on Monday, Snyder said the water filters – paid for by an anonymous donor – were distributed to Flint families after local pastors complained about the taste and color of the city's water.

Sanders and Clinton will face off Sunday night in a Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, S.C., along with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The independent Vermont senator, who is a democratic-socialist but votes with Democrats in the U.S. Senate, said he wasn’t weighing in on Flint’s crisis just because Clinton has been all week. Clinton dispatched two top campaign aides to Flint on Wednesday to meet with Mayor Karen Weaver.

“It’s not Sen. Clinton ... it’s not a question of compelled, it’s a question of understanding that when you have a crisis of this proportion, it’s absolutely imperative that the governor accept his responsibility, show the people of Flint and Michigan that he does appreciate the calamity that he caused and has the courage to the right thing, which is step down,” Sanders said.

Snyder is expected to address the Flint crisis Tuesday night during his annual State of the State address to the Legislature.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood

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