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Flint frustrated a year after Snyder’s ‘fix it’ promise

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Flint — The last time Gov. Rick Snyder delivered his State of the State speech, he addressed Flint’s water crisis by directly telling the city’s nearly 100,000 residents, “I am sorry, and I will fix it.”

A year later, as the Republican governor prepares Tuesday for his seventh annual address to state lawmakers, bottled and filtered water continue to be the norm in the beleaguered city. A solution to the lead contamination problems could be more than two years away from reaching every home.

Local elected officials contend Snyder hasn’t secured enough funding to deal with Flint’s problems. Snyder officials have pointed to the state’s allocation of $234 million in aid and congressional approval of $170 million in Flint-inspired funding from which the city may be able to tap tens of millions of dollars.

Residents here expressed surprise at the pace of response efforts, and many say their trust in government — already at a low point last year — has dipped further.

Torsha Lindsay didn’t hear Snyder’s 2016 speech, but the 38-year-old McDonald’s worker said she feels let down as she continues to use bottled water to bathe with a wash cloth each day. In addition to never quite feeling as clean as she’d like, Lindsay said she also feels abandoned.

“You’d think they’d try to make more effort to getting this fixed as soon as (possible),” she said. “But, you know, what can you tell the governor?”

Snyder keeps eye on infrastructure for State of State

In an interview with The Detroit News last week, Snyder said Flint had seen “a lot of progress” in the past year.

“The water has improved dramatically in terms of quality...,” he said. “But beyond that, I think we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of educational opportunities — a lot more preschool opportunities for Flint kids....

“(In) health care opportunities, we’ve got a lot more people with coverage now, we’re doing more things with healthy foods. ... And ... there have been about 800 jobs created, or in the pipeline to be created in Flint. So those are all major steps forward.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, the Flint Township Democrat who is considering a run for governor in 2018, plans to be in Lansing Tuesday to ensure Flint’s tainted water is not forgotten. Some city residents even plan a “Flint Stand Up to Snyder” protest at the Capitol, according to a Facebook posting by the so-called People’s Army.

“The state, which created the crisis, needs to step up and do more to help Flint families,” Kildee said in a statement released Wednesday.

Mistrust lingers

Snyder began to ramp up the Flint recovery efforts late on Jan. 5, 2016, by declaring a state of emergency for the city. Eight days later, he held a press conference detailing a spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease cases — possibly linked to the water — that ended up killing 12 people.

And on Jan. 19, appearing before the Legislature for his annual address, the governor used the first 20 minutes of his speech to outline the mistakes made in Flint and his plans to address them.

“There can be no excuse — when Michiganders turn on the tap, they expect and deserve clean, safe water,” Snyder said. “It’s that simple. It’s that straightforward. So that’s what we will deliver. To the families in Flint, it is my responsibility, my commitment, to deliver.

“I give you my commitment that Michigan will not let you down.”

A year-long Michigan Attorney General’s Office investigation into the Flint crisis has resulted in the filing of charges against 13 city and state workers and officials, including former emergency managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose. Many have contested the charges.

While the water running through the underground pipelines continues to improve — several experts now say it is of similar quality to that of any typical U.S. city — many residents expressed mistrust of both the water and the government charged with fixing it.

From April 2014 until the fall of 2015, while under the control of a Snyder-appointed emergency managers, the city drew its water from the Flint River and failed to treat it properly to prevent pipe corrosion. This allowed lead to leach into drinking water and damage the pipes themselves, creating a need for replacement.

Since Snyder’s emergency declaration, crews have replaced service lines in 780 homes so far, said retired Brig. Gen. McDaniel, who heads the replacement program.

“If we can do 6,000 homes per year, for the next three years, we should address the problem we have,” McDaniel said last week. That timeline pushes completion into late 2019 or early 2020.

McDaniel added the funding to pay for the work has not been secured yet.

‘Where does that make sense?’

Since taking office late in 2015, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has constantly lobbied the state for more funding. The response from Snyder’s office, she said, has been disappointing and one of the reasons for the slow movement of her Fast Start replacement program, which was designed to target neighborhoods with seniors, homes with high lead readings and high concentrations of children age 6 who are must vulnerable to lead exposure.

“We should have had money right then,” she said. “We had $500,000 to start...

“We’re in our third year of not being able to drink our water. Now where does that make sense in the United States of America? No place that I know of.”

But last summer, McDaniel said the pipe removal program was slowed by a lack of accurate records about where lead service lines are buried underground and a complicated bidding process for replacing partial and full pipelines on a house-by-house basis.

For Ajavianna Richard, the surreal nature of life in Flint has become the norm. The 18-year-old splits her time going to school and visiting her mother and siblings in the city and living in the township. Her sisters, ages 2 and 3, and her 6-year-old brother all suffer from eczema. The youngest has never known a time when people trusted the tap water.

“You would think they would fix this, when you have kids involved and people’s lives at stake,” Richard said. “It’s pretty messed up. It makes us feel like they’re not paying attention.”

Looking ahead

State Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, has focused on how Snyder has followed through on his 2016 State of the State message. As a former teacher familiar with grading, he said he would give Snyder an “incomplete.” While he credits the state’s efforts to provide health services and monitoring, he said funding in general is lacking.

And the provision of state aid is sometimes bungled, Ananich said. He pointed to an original state appropriation of $2 million designed to support families facing water shut-off for non-payment.

“That plan included a stipulation that in order to get the money, 70 percent of customers, commercial and residential, have to be up to date on payments,” Ananich said, noting customers were being asked to pay for water they couldn’t use safely. “So the utility has threatened a bunch of people with shut-offs.

“To rectify a problem of undrinkable water, the fix is to make people pay or cut them off.”

Both Ananich and Mark Valacak, Genesee County’s health officer, praise the state’s immediate health efforts targeting Flint’s most vulnerable populations, its youngest children and pregnant women. Yet Valacak and other health officials have stressed the need to create a database to track the impacts of residents’ exposure to contaminated water.

“What we need to be looking at is what, if any, long-term impacts were caused by this exposure,” Valacak said.

Michigan announced plans to fund such a registry — on Friday. The state’s Department of Health and Human Services said a one-year $500,000 grant will go to Michigan State University for “long-term tracking of residents exposed to Flint water” between April 2014 and now.

“Much feedback has already been gathered from Flint residents and stakeholders about how to implement a registry that truly works to better assist residents in ensuring they receive the services they need,” said Nick Lyon, director of the state department. “This planning grant is an important next step in the development of this registry, and I am confident that MSU will establish a solid foundation for the registry moving forward.”

George Krisztian, Flint action plan coordinator for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, highlighted several aspects of the state’s Flint response, including:

■Starting a program that employs residents to go door to door educating the public about safe practices and available assistance. Workers have knocked on more than 37,500 city doors and contacted over 10,000 residents, according to the state.

■Creating a five-prong testing program for Flint water that has focused on residences, schools, food establishments. It has targeted testing at sites with residents reporting high lead levels in their blood and spread sentinel testing throughout the city.

The monitoring is likely to continue as Flint moves ahead with lead line replacement. Work that moves large chunks of earth near pipelines is known to cause lead particles to enter the water flow, requiring additional attention.

“The overall quality of the water has improved very significantly,” Krisztian said. “But because of the construction, we want to keep on top of it.”

Both Weaver and Flint City Councilman Eric Mays said they had hoped the state’s efforts would have created more chances for local residents to help address problems. With all of the work remaining to be done, they said, it would be a wasted opportunity if residents weren’t a bigger part of it.

“We know (Snyder) has another State of the State address coming up..., and we’ll see if he spends as much time on this one talking about Flint as he did on that one,” Mays said. “But I don’t believe he’s pushed the Legislature to do what they could do.”

jlynch@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Michael Wayland contributed.