Gov. Rick Snyder prepares to request federal aid in Flint lead crisis

Jim Lynch and Chad Livengood
The Detroit News

Flint — Gov. Rick Snyder said Monday the state health department’s Oct. 1 confirmation of elevated lead in the blood of Flint residents was the first time he learned of the extent of the city’s drinking water crisis.

After getting Flint’s water supply switched back to Detroit’s system in mid-October, it took nearly three months until the governor declared a state emergency that Flint’s unfiltered water is not safe to drink — a delay for which he is facing national criticism.

But Snyder expressed regret Monday for how the state’s management of Flint’s drinking water supply ended in what he called, for the first time, “a crisis.”

“Obviously in retrospect there’s always opportunities you wish you could go back and do things,” Snyder said. “We have to deal with the circumstances we have today. This is something none of us wish would have happened.”

Snyder said the state is starting to draft a request for federal emergency assistance with Flint’s lead contaminated water crisis.

“We have engaged FEMA in this process,” Snyder said about the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We have not made a specific request for assistance yet.”

Despite a state emergency declaration, Snyder sidestepped questions Monday about whether Flint residents should be required to pay for lead contaminated water dating back to April 2014.

“That’s one of the questions that we’ll be reviewing,” Snyder said. “... We’re addressing the immediate issue now, which is making sure people have water filters and other resources.”

As Flint’s water emergency gains national attention, Snyder is facing one of the biggest challenges of his five years as Michigan’s governor in explaining what his administration knew about the quality of Flint’s water and why his emergency manager switched the city to Flint River water in April 2014 to save money.

State officials believe lead is leaching from Flint’s pipes because the Department of Environmental Quality did not require the city to treat Flint River water with corrosion control chemicals.

State health officials have confirmed 43 cases of elevated lead levels in the blood Flint residents, who complained for more than a year that the brownish Flint River smelled and caused rashes. Lead can cause irreversible brain and developmental damage in children and infants who ingest it through water or lead-based paint.

Following Flint’s Oct. 16 switch back to Detroit’s water supply from Lake Huron, state and local officials have been distributing 12,000 water filters to the city’s 33,000 households and encouraging parents to have their kids tested for lead poisoning, Snyder said.

“But it’s not been enough, so it needed to go to another level and that’s what we’re doing now,” Snyder said about the state’s “crisis” response.

The Snyder administration has struggled to explain why the Department of Environmental Quality failed to require Flint to prevent corrosion of lead pipelines in October 2014, when General Motors Co. deemed the water too corrosive for engine parts.

“It’s not good enough for GM, but it’s good enough to shove down people’s throats?” asked Gladyes Williamson, 61, a retired GM worker who says Flint’s water has ruined her hot water heater and washing machine.

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of Democrats lambasting the Republican governor’s handling of Flint’s water problems.

“We now know that a General Motors factory stopped using Flint’s water because it was corroding car engine parts — yet officials continued to reassure the public that the water was safe for human consumption. That’s unconscionable,” Clinton said in a statement.

Flint has been dealing with water issues since April 2014, when the city began using the Flint River as its source. In addition to consistent problem with taste, odor and discoloration, the water has been shown to contain high levels of lead.

Snyder used Monday’s press conference to explain how his office became aware of problems with Flint’s water supply.

On July 22, Snyder’s outgoing Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore raised concerns in an email to the state’s Health and Human Services department director that Flint residents were getting “blown off” by state agencies dismissing concerns about the smell and taste of Flint’s water.

Snyder said his office pushed state agencies to respond to concerns Muchmore was hearing from a group of Flint pastors.

“And to be open with you, they came back and reaffirmed they didn’t believe there was an issue,” Snyder said of the DEQ and DHHS. “That was not the correct outcome, it turns out, in retrospect. That was one of the problems with the situation.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said Monday the governor is trying to excuse a months-long delay in the state’s response to late summer studies showing rising lead levels in the blood of Flint children.

“The governor is trying to create a timetable and a narrative that forgives him responsibility,” Kildee said. “... Someone asked me the other day if (Snyder) should step down. I said ‘No, I want him to step up.’”

Snyder sought to deflect criticism of why the state has not sought a federal emergency declaration. He noted it took nearly a month to get a federal disaster declaration for last year’s flooding in Metro Detroit, which was a natural disaster. Flint’s water contamination crisis would only qualify for federal emergency status — not natural disaster assistance — since it was a manmade disaster.

Snyder and his chief medical executive also warned city residents against using tap water from the Flint River.

“We don’t want people to assume anything’s good until we’ve had a chance to do extensive testing,” he said.

“One of our immediate objectives is to make sure every Flint household has a water filter,” Michigan State Police Capt. Chris Kelenske said at the news conference.

On Monday, Snyder also created the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee to study the long-term effects of lead contamination on city residents and devise a strategy for addressing those effects.

State Sen. Jim Ananich, who asked Snyder’s office for an emergency declaration on Sept. 22, was unimpressed with the governor’s executive order.

“I want to see problems solved, but I don’t want to keep waiting for new layers of government,” said Ananich, who was allowed into the press conference. “I want to see us get working on it.”

With police officers guarding the doors, residents were not allowed into the Flint City Council chambers where Snyder, the mayor and several state agency directors stood for the mid-afternoon press conference.

A few residents could be heard outside the building protesting Snyder’s first appearance in Flint since declaring the emergency a week ago.

“I think it was a duck in and duck out, and that’s what the governor’s been doing to us for a year,” Williamson said.

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