Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder spoke directly to Flint residents Tuesday night and vowed to fix the beleaguered city’s lead-contaminated drinking water, as protesters outside of the Capitol called for his resignation.
In a State of the State address unlike any other in his tenure, Snyder focused almost exclusively on Flint and asked legislators for $28 million in emergency funding, calling it one step in a larger effort to provide relief and restore confidence in government.
“I’m sorry, and I will fix it,” said Snyder, who has prided himself as a problem solver. “No citizens of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe. Government failed you — federal, state and local leaders — by breaking the trust you placed in us. I’m sorry most of all that I let you down.”
The second-term Republican governor said he will not stop working until the Flint crisis is resolved.
“I’m personally committing the next three years of my administration to tirelessly ensure the families of Flint can heal from these wounds,” said Snyder, who occasionally became teary-eyed during the speech.
Democrats said the governor sounded insincere, though they stopped short of echoing the chants outside the Capitol walls demanding that Snyder step down.
“The first priority has to be fixing the problem but yes, obviously, the trust of Michigan residents in the governor has been harmed by this,” said House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills.
In effort to restore trust and be more transparent, Snyder announced that he will release his personal emails on Flint from 2014 and 2015 on Wednesday.
“You deserve better,” he told Flint residents. “You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth, and I have a responsibility to tell the truth, the truth about what we’ve done, and what we’ll do to overcome this challenge.”
Snyder went through a detailed accounting of how the state Department of Environmental Quality allowed Flint to draw Flint River water without using corrosion control chemicals to prevent lead-soldered pipes from leaching the toxic metal into the city’s water supply.
The governor was especially critical of state workers who misapplied federal regulations blamed on the crisis.
“In situations like this, it must come to my desk immediately. No delays. No excuses. Period,” the governor said.
At the end of the speech, Snyder reflected further on the breakdown in his government.
“It’s truly a humbling experience to see the people you work for and care for harmed by the people who work for you,” Snyder said.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat, said the governor engaged in “a little bit of rewriting history and a little bit of trying to shift and pass the buck.
“Saying sorry is important, but at the same time you are saying sorry you are blaming other people,” Ananich said.
The high-profile speech drew national interest, including an appearance by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was the guest of state Rep. Brian Banks, D-Detroit.
“He’s wounded,” Jackson told The Detroit News. “Now what happens to him should be determined by the Department of Justice. How thorough are those emails? He has known about this for some time and did not act emphatically and quickly.”
The governor used the first half of the annual address to detail how state government is responding to crisis in Flint.
Snyder said he is increasing the number of National Guard members assisting with water distribution in Flint from about 80 to 200. Over the past week, state workers and volunteers have been delivering bottled water and filters to about 5,000 homes per day with the goal of making contact with Flint’s 39,000 households by weeks’ end.
“We will not stop working for the people of Flint until every single person has clean water every single day, no matter what,” Snyder said to applause from a joint session of the Michigan House and Senate.
Snyder’s administration on Tuesday requested lawmakers approve $28 million in emergency funding for the state’s ground-level response to Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis hours before the speech.
The governor said Flint’s aging pipelines leaching toxic lead expose a need to upgrade the state’s aging major infrastructure beyond roads and bridges.
“We need to make sure this never happens again in any Michigan city,” Snyder said.
Snyder’s request includes $5.8 million for an “infrastructure integrity study” to assess Flint’s corrosion-damaged system of pipelines, according to a copy of the bill obtained by The Detroit News.
The governor’s funding plan would send $5 million to Flint for immediate water system upgrades and aiding the city’s utility department. Some residents have stopped paying past due bills because the unfiltered water is undrinkable.
About $17.2 million of the supplemental funding bill would be used for purchasing more bottled water, filters and replacement cartridges, testing the city’s water, blood testing residents and deploying a host of wrap-around services for residents with elevated lead levels in their blood.
The services include more money for hiring nine school nurses in Flint’s public school district, providing nutrition support for low-income mothers and children, funding in-home nurse visits and food inspections, supporting a children’s health care program and crisis counseling, and assessing other health risks related to the lead contamination.
Snyder is asking for $2 million to buy new plumbing fixtures for Flint’s public and private schools, child and adult foster care centers, as well as dialysis and surgical centers in the city, according to the bill.
The supplemental funding bill includes another $2 million for the Michigan National Guard’s operations in Flint.
“The numbers we’re hearing, I think that’s going to be the start of a long journey that I think the Legislature and the governor have a responsibility to be part of, because the lack of oversight over these past 13 months has made this problem much bigger than it needed to be,” Ananich said.
Snyder said this won’t be his last special funding request for Flint’s needs.
“I know there will be long-term consequences, but I want you to know we’ll be there,” he said.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers are anxious to learn what the lead contamination will cost to remediate.
“I sympathize with the people of Flint and we have to get the job done, however, there is not a blank check,” said Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
State Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said Snyder’s speech was short on specifics about the long-term costs associated with lead poisoning of Flint children who will need health and educational interventions for years to come.
“I think really over the next few weeks, that is what the people of Michigan really want to hear about — how are you going to deal with the long-term issues that this crisis has created,” Singh said.
State health officials have confirmed elevated blood-lead levels in 50 Flint residents, including 28 children under the age of 6, the administration said last week. With 2,642 residents tested, it is not yet known how widespread the problem is.
President Barack Obama has declared a federal emergency in the Flint area, paving the way for $5 million in aid. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the governor’s request for $96 million in assistance through a major disaster declaration, typically reserved for natural catastrophes. Snyder plans to appeal.
Greimel declined to put a dollar amount on any prospective aid package for Flint.
“I would argue that the state has a responsibility to make those children whole, no matter what the price tag,” Greimel said.