Snyder may request federal aid for Flint water crisis

Melissa Nann Burke and Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in Flint because of its contaminated drinking water, setting the stage for a possible request for federal assistance in the city’s crisis.

Snyder’s declaration makes available all state resources in cooperation with local response and recovery operations and authorizes the Michigan State Police, Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division to coordinate the state’s efforts.

“Working in full partnership with the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, all levels of government and water quality experts, we will find both short-term and long-term solutions to ensure the health and safety of Flint residents,” Snyder said.

The Republican governor also activated the State Emergency Operations Center to coordinate state response and recovery activities.

“The state of Michigan will use its resources to the fullest possible extent during this emergency,” according to a statement by the Michigan Emergency Management, Homeland Security Division. “If state and local resources are unable to cope with the emergency, the Governor may request federal assistance.”

Flint residents have been plagued by water issues since April 2014, when they began receiving drinking water drawn from the Flint River. Immediate concerns over odd tastes, smells and coloring gave way to more serious worries late this summer when rising levels of lead were detected in the blood of the city’s children.

Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and, at high levels, may lead to seizures, coma and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, expressed frustration with the slow pace of Snyder’s response.

“It is beyond frustrating that the city I love, and the people who live in it, had to declare it destroyed before the state would act with any urgency,” Ananich said in a Tuesday statement.

Flint is in discussions with state officials about financing forgivable loans to replace lead-leaching pipes, but U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, raised the question of how much additional debt the city can absorb — even if a portion would be forgivable.

“The city has to be competitive and fiscally sustainable — not just for the city itself but for the people who live there,” Kildee said.

The governor’s action came a day after the Genesee County Board Of Commissioners declared an emergency and almost three weeks after the city of Flint did so.

Water purity uncertain

Despite Flint’s reconnection to the Detroit water system in October, the purity of its drinking water remains unclear.

“No one really knows the current status of lead in Flint’s water supply,” Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech researcher whose testing showed dangerous levels of lead in the city’s tap water, recently wrote on his website. “We have taken the position that until Flint actually passes a round of legitimate EPA Lead and Copper Rule-monitoring, (the water) should be assumed unsafe for cooking and drinking.”

It’s an alarming assessment since Genesee County this week released findings that 40 percent of Flint homes may not be using the free water filters that have been made available, Ananich said.

“We’re not sure the water still has lead in it or not,” he said Tuesday.

A week ago, Snyder apologized to Flint residents for the state’s handling of the situation after his appointed task force made an initial finding that held the state Department of Environmental Quality “primarily responsible” for failing to ensure safe drinking water in Flint. It blamed the DEQ’s passive culture and led to the resignation of its director, Dan Wyant.

Snyder’s declaration came on the same day that a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit confirmed it is helping the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigate Flint’s water crisis.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office normally doesn’t disclose ongoing probes. But Gina Balaya, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit, confirmed the investigation while explaining the worries of Flint’s residents may have prompted the agency’s disclosure.

“In an effort to address the concerns of Flint residents, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan is working closely with the EPA in the investigation of the contamination of the city of Flint’s water supply,” Balaya said.

“Our policy has always been that we neither confirm nor deny investigations; however, the nature of this situation warranted an exception to that policy.”

Kildee outlines aid vision

Kildee welcomed Snyder’s emergency move. But in an earlier Tuesday interview, Kildee said he wants the state to initiate and pay for efforts to extend nutritional and educational aid to mitigate the effects of lead exposure in Flint children.

“The thing that had been increasingly frustrating to me is that a lot of time has passed, and I don’t want to wait for more reports or conclusions,” Kildee said in his Washington, D.C., office.

“Whether it’s nutritional support or developmental support in the form of early childhood education, or ongoing support during their educational experience going forward, every day that’s lost is a day that they can’t get back. The trajectory of these kids is going to be affected by how quickly we can get them the help that they need.”

Kildee also renewed his call for Snyder to forgive Flint’s obligation to pay $2 million toward temporarily reconnecting the city to Detroit’s water system.

The state emergency is set to end Feb. 1, according to Snyder’s emergency declaration, but it can be renewed until “the threats to public health, safety and property caused by the emergency no longer exist and appropriate programs have been implemented to recover from the effects of this emergency.”

If state aid doesn’t fix the contaminated water, Flint faces hurdles if Snyder seeks federal emergency assistance.

The EPA has said loans such as the $21 million owed by Flint for water infrastructure are not eligible for loan forgiveness. The loans came from a state-managed fund at the DEQ that is governed by federal law and regulations.

An April letter from EPA regional administrator Susan Hedman to Kildee says forgiving the principal on Flint’s four loans would be considered an additional loan subsidy, which is not allowed.

A group of AmeriCorps volunteers is set to go door to door in Flint starting in February to help spread the word about what support is available to them and where to find it, Kildee said.

Detroit News Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed.