Gov’s office helps get water filters to Flint families

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder’s office quietly orchestrated the distribution of 1,500 water filters to Flint families this summer while insisting the city’s water is safe to drink.

Snyder’s office worked with an anonymous corporate donor to distribute the faucet filters through a group of Flint pastors.

Snyder said Wednesday there may be more water filters donated to Flint residents to “give them more confidence and comfort in their water supply.”

“I thought it was the right thing to do to try to help people in some constructive way and that was a step forward ... and that may be part of this continuing process,” Snyder said at a Lansing press conference on his new appointee to the Michigan Supreme Court.

It is unclear who initiated the plan to give Flint residents free water filters — the donor, the governor’s office or someone else.

“We worked with the pastors’ group to distribute the filters and asked that members respect the donor’s wishes not to be identified,” Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said Tuesday. “We told the group that we’re not looking for credit and appreciated the pastors’ efforts in working with the community on this effort.”

Snyder’s office acknowledged its role Tuesday in handing out the free filters to Flint residents while pressure is mounting on state agencies to fix Flint’s troubled water system. A study last week showed elevated levels of lead in the blood of Flint children younger than 5.

For the first time Wednesday, Snyder acknowledged the study performed by Flint-area pediatricians, which his administration has previously disputed.

“It appears that lead levels could be higher or have increased, what could be done to deal with that in an effective fashion,” Snyder said. “We’re looking at making sure they’re within safe limits according to the federal government.”

The Flint-based Concerned Pastors for Social Action handed out the 1,500 water filters in three hours on Sept. 1 at Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, said the Rev. Alfred Harris, pastor of Saints of God Church in Flint.

Harris said the involvement of Snyder’s office in coordinating the donation of the water filters is an admission that something is wrong with Flint’s water.

“I think what that says to me is regardless to what the health board says or EPA or DEQ, that the cries of the people, the rashes, the hair loss, must have resonated with someone’s heart within the administration,” Harris said Wednesday.

The governor’s office is in discussions with “a number of groups that are interested” in distributing more faucet filters, Murray said.

The water filters can remove chemical compounds as well as lead, a toxic metal that can hinder brain development in young children even at low levels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“People have complained about the color and the odor, and faucet filters will help with those challenges as well as improving water quality overall,” Murray said.

Flint residents began complaining about the taste and color of the city’s water in April 2014 when the city halted a half-century of purchasing water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and started pumping drinking water from the Flint River.

River water is a trickier source for municipal cleaning and distribution than Lake Huron, where the Detroit system gets its water. The deeper, still waters of the lake contain few of the organic materials found in river water and require a different treatment protocol.

“We found there were probably things that weren’t as fully understood when that switch was made,” Snyder said Wednesday.

The Flint River is serving as a temporary water source until the city can connect to a new regional water pipeline from Lake Huron that won’t be ready until late 2016.

A year ago, General Motors’ Flint Engine Operations plant stopped using the city’s river because of concerns about corrosive effects and now gets its water from Flint Township.

Last week, pediatricians at Hurley Medical Center released a study of blood levels of Flint children younger than 5 between January 2013 and September 2013 when Flint used Detroit’s water and January and September of this year when residents drank Flint River water.

But Flint’s water tested below the federal limit for lead in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s 2014 testing, DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said Tuesday.

Still, the state agency is working closely to address a “crisis of confidence” among Flint residents, Wurfel said. “Even though it is meeting standards, there is a significant concern in the city of Flint,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, has urged Snyder to seek emergency funding to distribute faucet filters to about 15,000 Flint homes.

Ananich also wants the governor to get Flint reconnected to Detroit’s water system.

In January, the Detroit water system offered to reconnect water service to Flint because of the complaints. Flint officials rebuffed the offer, saying an analysis concluded it would cost Flint an additional $12 million per year or more.

Snyder has been non-committal to Ananich’s proposals, but said Wednesday his administration will announce action before week’s end.

“I have a large team of people working on the Flint water issue as we speak,” Snyder said Tuesday after an event in Lansing. “What I would say is during the course of the week or early next week, hopefully we’ll be coming out with more public action steps ... and more action steps to take in the future.

“I take it as a serious issue, the Flint water situation. Lead’s a serious issue, so we’re spending a lot of time and effort looking at that and trying to partner with the people in Flint on that issue.”

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