White House jabs Snyder, then grants Obama meeting

Chad Livengood, and Keith Laing

Flint — Gov. Rick Snyder will greet President Barack Obama on the tarmac of Flint Bishop International Airport, but it’s unclear whether the two leaders will meet privately Wednesday to discuss the city’s water emergency.

The governor’s inclusion in Obama’s visit, confirmed Monday by Snyder’s spokesman, came after the White House press secretary earlier in the day chided Snyder’s request for a meeting with the commander-in-chief.

Last week, Snyder told The Detroit News he didn’t have time in his “pretty full schedule" to meet with Obama, but changed course at a Monday news conference in Flint. “I’m still waiting to hear back on that request,” he said.

When asked Monday about Snyder’s new request to meet with the Democratic president and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver on Wednesday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest wouldn’t make an immediate commitment but took a shot.

“Guess his schedule got a little freed up,” Earnest said at the Monday daily briefing.

The press secretary said Obama and Snyder at least could cross paths during the president’s arrival.

“We’re still putting together the president’s visit,” Earnest said. “It’s traditional when a president travels to invite the governor of a state to at least greet him on the tarmac. …We’ll keep you posted on what interactions they’ll have.”

“We’re obviously pleased that he will be in Flint on that day,” he added.

Anna Heaton, the governor’s press secretary, shot back Monday afternoon at Earnest on Twitter.

“@PressSec Should have left the jokes at the WHCD. Flint’s recovery warrants full attention & cooperation of fed, state & local govts,” Heaton wrote, referring to Saturday night’s White House Correspondents Dinner.

Obama will deliver remarks Wednesday at Flint’s Northwestern High School, the White House said Monday. No other details about the president’s visit have been made public.

The White House jab came after Snyder resumed his pledge to drink filtered Flint water on Monday, filling up four gallon-sized jugs at Blackstone’s Pub & Grill in downtown Flint in his first public event since spending seven days in Europe last week on a trade mission.

Earnest sidestepped a question about whether Obama also would drink filtered water in Flint.

“Based on what the EPA has communicated to the public ... properly filtered water is safe to drink, so I certainly would encourage people to listen to the advice that they get from our scientific and public health experts about what water is safe to drink,” he said. “The president will certainly follow that advice.”

The assembled reporters laughed when Earnest said he wasn’t aware of any photo opportunities of the president drinking water.

For his part, Snyder said he wants the chance to forge a closer partnership with the outgoing Democratic president and Weaver, who also is a Democrat.

“It’s really a question of how we can work together. It’s not to get into the history of all of this,” Snyder said. “There’s major challenges here, given the water crisis. There were significant challenges in Flint prior to that.”

Flint water blame

Earnest sought to distance Obama from blame for the Flint water crisis, pointing out that a commission appointed Snyder pointed most of the fault at the Snyder administration.

“The blue-ribbon independent commission that was appointed by the Republican governor of the state of Michigan found ‘primary responsibility’ for the water contamination in Flint lies with the MDEQ,’” he said, referring to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Earnest downplayed the notion that Obama would be issuing any mea culpas for the federal role in the Flint water crisis during his trip.

“I don’t … expect for the president to spend a lot of time talking about specific accountability primarily because there continue to be ongoing investigations into that accountability and the president doesn’t want to be perceived as weighing in on one side or the either,” he said.

“The president will certainly go to Michigan and make a forceful case that as the president of the United States, he feels responsible for the safety and well-being of every American,” Earnest continued.

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and two other GOP colleagues called for EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to resign at a March 17 hearing. McCarthy refused under questioning to apologize or admit the federal agency did anything wrong in failing to make the lead contamination public before late September.

The Detroit News reported in January that EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman in a July 1 email showed no sense of alarm over the threat to public health and more concern about procedure. She was responding to then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling’s email about an EPA June 24 memo warning of high lead levels in Flint’s water.

“The preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency,” Hedman wrote in the July 1 email.

The revised and vetted memo was released four months later in November — after the state decided in early October that the water was unsafe. Hedman resigned Feb. 1.

Other Flint developments

Snyder also said the state plans to begin enrolling 14,000 Flint children and 1,000 pregnant women next Monday in an expanded Medicaid program.

The Detroit News reported Monday the Republican-controlled Legislature has taken two months to approve Snyder’s request for the additional health coverage assistance for Flint families potentially exposed to high levels of toxic lead.

“I think that’s another major step forward,” Snyder told reporters.

The GOP governor is trying to encourage residents to drink Flint’s water with the use of properly maintained faucet filters.

“The research shows drinking filtered water is safe, even at high lead levels,” Snyder said.

While Snyder was wooing foreign investment across Europe last week, Weaver was in Lansing trying to lobby for more money to remove thousands of residential water pipelines blamed for leaching lead into the city’s drinking water over the past two years.

Snyder said the state gave the city $2 million to remove up to 500 lead service lines.

“We need to continue getting the lead service lines out,” Snyder said.

Flint has replaced 33 lead service lines since March through Weaver’s Fast Start initiative, spokeswoman Kristin Moore said Monday.

The city is taking bids from contractors to remove and replace another 400 lead service lines that connect homes to water main pipelines along streets, Moore said.

Weaver has said the city needs $55 million to replace all of Flint’s lead service lines.

“It no doubt would lower the per-home cost to replace the pipes if contractors were bidding on $55 million worth of work rather than $2 million,” Moore said in an email Monday.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

Twitter: @ChadLivengood