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Volunteers help get filters, bottled water around Flint

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — As the Flint water crisis draws national attention, city and state officials announced an initiative Sunday that will put bottled water, filters and water testing kits in the hands of residents as a federal agency and local labor unions handed out thousands of bottled water.

State officials on Sunday said that water resource teams would begin dispensing water and other resources door to door. City officials are working with the state as well as Michigan State Police and Genesee County Sheriff’s Office in the effort.

Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday declared a state of emergency for Genesee County, setting the groundwork for seeking federal relief, and his chief medical executive said last week that Flint’s water is not safe to drink without a filter. The crisis sprang from actions of the city, under state control and in an effort to save money, switching from Detroit’s water system to the corrosive Flint River from April to October 2014 without proper checks for the lead levels.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said Sunday that she understands many residents want the governor to be held accountable in the contamination crisis but she said her focus is on ensuring clean water in the city, which she said could take as much as $1.5 billion to replace the city’s lead-leaching water pipes.

“I do know that we have investigation going on and so I’m trying to let that process play out because it’s going to show where the buck stops and who helped get the buck there,” said Weaver after a news conference at the city’s main fire station, which that has become one of five water resource sites in Flint. “I’m really looking forward to seeing that because we want everyone to be held accountable.”

Weaver said the resignation of the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is a start following the water crisis. The resignations in late December of DEQ Director Dan Wyant and spokesman Brad Wurfel followed the release last month of the findings of a task force assembled by Snyder that largely faulted DEQ workers.

“It will be two years in April, and that will be two years too long,” Weaver said. “And we didn’t deserve for this to happen here in Flint and we know it happened under the emergency manager.”

When asked if Snyder is taking city officials seriously, she said, “He has to take us seriously. My focus is to make sure we’re doing a smooth, coordinated effort. I can sit here and be angry but that doesn’t help me get people what they need.”

Snyder met with Weaver Thursday at his office in Lansing and emphasized the need to create a “very close partnership” with Flint’s new mayor.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had three officials from its Chicago office deliver bottled water to residents, state officials said.

United Auto Workers locals from Detroit and Flint brought more than 5,000 bottles of water to the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan for distribution to water resource sites around the city.

“We understand the need for basic water rights,” said John Hatline, the UAW Local shop District #8, who along with six others from Metro Detroit brought the water. “The state has known about this for a while. And the children here are affected by the water. We want to give back.”

Kelly Belcher, marketing manager of the food bank, said the water will be distributed to 130 agencies in the city and that volunteers and other donors are expected to bring in water all week.

“They need it for cooking, they need it for drinking,” she said. “I don’t believe they are using the bottled water for bathing but even the water that they are bathing in is causing rashes. The demand for water is very, very high. It’s higher than this city can handle.”

Hatline was blunt in his criticism of the Snyder administration, which is receiving much of the blame for its slow response to the crisis.

“Never in my life did I think I’d see something like this,” said Hatline of Macomb Township. “I don’t understand why this state and this government has been dropping the ball with this water situation. They need to correct the problem. This is people's lives here that we are talking about.”

The Snyder administration has been dogged for weeks about its response to the crisis. Emails released last week show delays and bad information prompted Michigan officials to give false assurances to Flint residents about tap water lead levels.

The lead story prompted celebrity Cher to tweet that “Gov. of Michigan is a murderer” and accused Snyder of deciding to “poison the water.” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow covered the issue and Newsweek magazine called the contamination “one of the nastiest cases of toxic discharge in 2015.” Flint resident and director Michael Moore called for Snyder’s arrest on charges of corruption and assault.

Donna Miller of Local 22, which also helped bring the water up from Metro Detroit, said clean water is about “basic human rights."

“Water is a basic need. It’s a travesty what’s going on,” she said, adding the governor should be held accountable.

Vivian Kelley, 66, of Flint and her daughter April Kelley, 50, stopped by one of the five Flint firehouses for bottled water. To shower, they run the water on hot for more than five minutes and even that doesn’t give them comfort.

“You have to lotion down really good,” Vivian Kelley said. “I haven’t had many problems but some people have. I’m one of the fortunate ones. It’s difficult to think that the water that you pay these astronomical water bills for, you can’t drink it. That’s awful.”

April Kelley said the issue has been difficult for the elderly. “They can’t afford to go out and buy cases and cases of water in large amounts like that,” she said. “And they are getting sick. These people (in state government), it’s no big deal to them. All they’re worrying about is how they are looking in the public eye.”

Sandy Ireland, 37, of Flint who stopped by a firehouse to pick up a water filter for her home, said the water was so bad that her pit bull took one whiff and stayed away from it.

Harvey Hollins, Snyder’s director of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives, said he understands the residents’ fears but that the state has worked “very aggressively” to set up an operation and partnership with county and city officials to address resident’s water needs.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming