Snyder deploys top aide to work on Flint water response

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Gov. Rick Snyder said Wednesday he is deploying a top aide to work in Flint and enlisting outside experts to study water quality in hopes of restoring access to safe tap water in the beleaguered city.

But the state needs more time to assess the city’s underground infrastructure and determine whether lead service lines will need to be replaced, Snyder said during a joint press conference with Mayor Karen Weaver and state officials at Flint City Hall.

“Let’s take care of the people of Flint, both short term making sure they have the bottled water and filters and everything else they need, and then, how do we get good water coming out of the tap, and then how do we rebuild the community?” Snyder said.

The governor announced that Transformation Manager Rich Baird, a Flint native, will work out of an office in the city and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley will also be a regular presence. Baird helped recruit Jones Day bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr to become Detroit’s emergency manager and helped the city navigate the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country’s history.

“You’ll find many other departments bringing resources to bear on the ground here to help the people of Flint,” Snyder said. “…We’re going to keep doing more, and we’re going to keep committed to the city of Flint.”

The efforts include mapping Flint’s water infrastructure to find out where the lead pipes are and deciding how to prioritize their replacement, the governor said.

“There’s a lot of work to be done there, and then you have to figure out what’s the long-term infrastructure plan to do a replacement of those things,” Snyder said.

The state continues to advise residents against drinking unfiltered tap water due to elevated lead levels, but Department of Environmental Quality Interim Director Keith Creagh said recent testing has shown some signs of improvement.

Some parts of the city do not have lead service lines, said Creagh, who added that targeted water testing may soon allow officials to clear some neighborhoods for tap water use.

“We’re not going to guess. We’re going to assure that people in this city get clean, safe drinking water,” he said, noting that an “all clear” will not be given until there is a consensus between government and independent researchers. “That’s our commitment, is to put together a methodical, defensible and reasonable or rational plan.”

Both the state and city have enlisted the services of Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who first exposed elevated lead levels in the water last year. Weaver said the city has retained Edwards to oversee all state and federal water testing. He will be paid from private dollars, she said.

Snyder on Wednesday appointed Edwards to the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, which will include Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Hurley Medical Center pediatrician who first found elevated lead levels in the blood of children. The governor was expected to meet with the 17-member committee for the first time on Wednesday afternoon.

The Michigan Senate could vote Thursday on $28 million in supplemental funding for Flint. Weaver noted the plan includes $3 million to help the city offset losses from customers who are behind on their water bills. Resident should not have to pay for water they cannot drink, she said.

“I’m glad the governor said this is a first step,” Weaver said. “I’m asking for a staircase. We need more, we want more.”

Snyder declined to discuss a lawsuit by a coalition of activists demanding the state pick up the tab for full replacement of underground lead service lines that may have been damaged by Flint River water that was not properly treated to prevent corrosion.

The more pressing issue, the governor said, is determining whether efforts to recoat existing pipes with proper corrosion control treatments will produce safer drinking water.

“There absolutely is a trust issue,” Snyder said, acknowledging local residents will question officials who have provided them with questionable information in the past.

The state is also asking the federal government to expand Medicaid health care eligibility to cover all Flint-area residents up to 21 years of age and provide Medicaid match dollars for lead abatement activities.

The federal assistance could help the state stretch its resources as it looks to provide services for residents exposed to lead and ensure access to nutritional foods that can reduce the effects, said Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon.

“We know that lead can have impacts for years to come, and we’re working with our local partners here at the Genesee Health System and the Genesee County Health Department to determine what tracks, what activities and what services need to be provided to ensure that children get the best chance they have at being successful,” Lyon said.

Snyder continues to face criticism for an initially slow response to the Flint water crisis and some subsequent steps, including the recent hiring of two public relations firms that he is paying through an outside tax-exempt, nonprofit fund.

The governor defended the hires on Wednesday.

“Communications is a huge issue in this,” he said. “It’s not about spinning anything. It’s about getting the facts out there.”

Snyder also hosted a tele-town hall for Flint residents later Wednesday, spokesman Dave Murray confirmed. He was not immediately able to say how many people participated.

The governor “wanted an opportunity to speak directly to Flint residents and tell them about the things the state is doing to help them, and the plans to help them long into the future,” Murray said.

The state has been ramping up relief efforts since confirming elevated lead levels on Oct. 1.