Flint mayor to lobby Snyder on bottled water

Leonard N. Fleming, and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver is planning to lobby Gov. Rick Snyder for an extension of the free bottled water to her city after the Republican governor on Friday ended the program.

Gov Rick Snyder, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and Michigan State Police Capt. Chris Kelenske speak at a news conference Monday afternoon, Jan 11, 2016 at Flint City Hall about the city's water crisis.

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said Tuesday the governor would meet with Weaver “when his schedule allows.” The state said it plans to close four remaining water bottle distribution centers when supplies are exhausted — which is expected to be this week — following 21 months of state testing that showed lead water levels that are within federal standards.

Weaver said in a Tuesday interview that Snyder is ending the bottled water program at a time when “we’re trying to re-establish trust when trust has been broken in the city of Flint.” The Democratic mayor said she hopes to persuade Snyder to keep the bottled water flowing until his successor takes office in early January.

Weaver said she worries that lead “particulates can get shaken loose” and seep into the water system during construction and water service line replacement efforts. Lead leached from the city’s aging water lines after Flint switched to corrosive Flint River water in 2014 and the state’s environmental regulators failed to insist on adding anti-corrosion chemicals to the drinking water.

“I think it was a bad decision to cut it abruptly like that, and once the water is gone it’s gone,” she said. “I would hope that we’d meet sooner rather than later because you can just see what’s happening in Flint and the way the people have responded. The governor is done (next year). He could have done it until he’s out of office.”

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said mid-day Tuesday that all Flint water stations still had bottled water. But she said “we’re probably getting pretty close” to running out of its supplies after initially estimating the bottle water would last until between Tuesday and Friday.

“I think it’s safe to say we’ve seen an increased demand at the pods,” she said.

Weaver said no one told state officials that bottled water needed to continue in perpetuity. But the state needs to complete the process of rebuilding trust with the residents who have suffered for more than three years during the contamination crisis, she said.

“We’re not asking for water forever,” Weaver said. “We’re asking for water until we got through the lead service line replacement and everybody knew the time frame. It would take us three years.” The city is ahead of schedule, she said, and the pipes are expected be replaced in another year and a half — or near the end of 2019.

In his Friday letter to Weaver, Snyder said nearly two years of data and thousands of tests show that “Flint’s water is testing the same as or better than similar cities across the state.” At 4 pars per billion, the city’s water quality “is superior to Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Philadelphia,” he wrote, and is under the federal standard of 15 parts per billion.

The governor said the bottled water had continued “in the spirit of good faith,” but the state “taxpayers were not bound by any statute or standard to fund bottled water.”

“I agree with you that there was a great deal of work to be done to restore trust, and there are many ways we have worked to do that,” Snyder wrote to Weaver, pointing out state staff assistance, new employment opportunities for residents and “continuing to fund health care and nutrition services for all.”

But Weaver said other options should be examined, such as reducing the total amount of free bottled water for eight a day to four “because you may not need as much.”

Ari Adler, Snyder’s director of communications, said the only thing that will change as a result of Friday’s announcement is that bottled water will not be restocked when it runs out.

“All other state programs — from filters, to water testing to health, education and economic development programs — will remain in place,” Adler said in an email. “The state is not leaving Flint, it is continuing to pour resources into the city to help it move forward.”

The school lead testing has been underway, Weaver said. “Ninety percent of the testing in the schools has come back very good, but 10 percent is still too high when we’re talking about our kids,” she said.

The public reaction has been swift in favor of keeping the water, the mayor said, adding, “most of the people have recognized that the state has been responsible for this and they’re not happy with the state.”

Meanwhile, state legislators could push to continue bottled water service in the current or upcoming budget, but it appears unlikely. Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive said the state cut-off announcement should be seen as a positive development because it is based on testing data.

“I understand their apprehension,” Meekhof said of Flint residents, “but I think if they’ve got scientific evidence that the water is meeting the quality standard, that’s a good thing.”

He added: “I’d go there and drink the water.”

But Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a statement “it seems to me that bottled water distribution in Flint should continue until lead pipes have been replaced and trust in government has been restored.” Schuette, a Republican who is running for governor, is prosecuting several state officials criminally for the Flint crisis and 2014-2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.

But Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican who is also running for governor, stood behind Snyder’s decision.

“The Flint water system is the most extensively tested public water system in America,” Calley campaign spokesman Michael Schrimpf said in a Tuesday email. “He believes with the dramatic improvements in water quality that transitioning from bottled water is now appropriate. It’s sad but not surprising to see the attorney general once again showing more interest in trying to score political points than the progress that's been made in Flint.”

But Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat, called the end to the bottled water program “a big mistake.”

“I think people are panicking,” he said. “They’re running to the water stations. They’re angry. They feel like this governor, who said in his State of the State address he’s going to be there until it’s fixed. This is another example of him cutting and running.”

Ananich said his family relies on a combination of bottled and filtered water for their daily needs. But he only allows his son to drink bottled water.

“I have more information than probably anybody in Flint, and I don’t trust these people that lied to me to my face,” Ananich said of state regulators and officials who had initially downplayed concerns of Flint water quality.

Weaver said the Snyder administration’s cutoff decision came when “we were starting to make headway because things had calmed down” with the residents.


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