White House to decide soon on $96M Flint aid request

Jonathan Oosting, Chad Livengood, and Melissa Nann Burke

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder has asked President Barack Obama to declare a federal emergency in Flint and expedite $96 million in disaster relief for Genesee County as a result of the city’s lead-contaminated water crisis.

The White House on Friday promised a quick review of the request, which the governor made late Thursday night to help Flint residents and repair a public water pipeline infrastructure damaged by corrosive river water blamed for lead contamination.

Snyder was in Flint on Friday and visited a water distribution center, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver told The Detroit News Friday night. Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said Snyder also spoke to some residents who came to pick up water and filters.

Weaver said he also met with city officials and pastors who talked about what they would like to see happen in the city in response to the water crisis.

“I have determined that this incident is potentially of such severity and magnitude that effective recovery is beyond the capabilities of the State of Michigan and the affected local governments and that federal relief assistance is necessary,” Snyder wrote in a nine-page letter to Obama that came nine days after he declared a state emergency in the city.

Documents show the Snyder administration’s request includes:

■$54.6 million for the repair of damaged lead service lines on private property.

■$10.3 million for 90 days of water.

■$31 million for a year’s worth of filters and other water supplies.

“We are utilizing all state resources to ensure Flint residents have access to clean and safe drinking water, and today I am asking President Obama to provide additional resources as our recovery efforts continue,” Snyder said in a statement.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that Snyder’s request will be considered expeditiously and a Federal Emergency Management Agency recommendation to Obama could come as early as this weekend.

Democrats have been harping on the Republican governor to seek federal disaster aid since he declared a state of emergency Jan. 5 in Flint over the crisis, which stems from switching the city’s source of drinking water from the Detroit water system to the Flint River.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality admitted it failed to force the city to treat the water with corrosion controls, which caused old lead connections to leech. All of Flint’s children have been exposed to the lead contamination, Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Eden Wells said this week.

The governor’s application estimated the cost of replacing Flint’s water infrastructure at $712.8 million for public lines and $54.6 million for private lines.

Flint’s water contamination crisis would only qualify for federal emergency status — not natural disaster assistance — since it was a man-made disaster.

The emergency plea was followed Friday by Snyder’s request to speed up the restoration of more power to Weaver after the city emerged from financial management in late April.

Earnest noted that FEMA personnel have already been deployed to Flint to provide logistical and technical support to state and local officials. They also serve as liaisons between the long-term recovery committee created by Snyder and relevant federal agencies that may assist with existing programs and funds.

FEMA has also given bottled water to Michigan. “They had bottled water that was nearing its expiration date that they were prepared to donate to charity, that has been redirected to this ongoing response effort in Michigan,” Earnest said during the daily press briefing.

Weaver told The News 140 state workers have been working to ensure that residents have water filters.

Snyder’s emergency request stirred support Friday from Michigan’s congressional delegation:

■Democratic U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township urged the president to approve Snyder’s request.

“Over the last several years, our governor and state regulators have failed to meet their legal responsibilities to protect the public health and well-being of the people of Flint,” they said Friday in the letter to Obama. “... In addition to the substantial financial commitments we expect the State of Michigan to provide, we are asking for your help in marshaling any available federal resources to combat the near- and long-term health, behavioral, and cognitive effects that are well documented for children and vulnerable populations exposed to dangerously high lead levels and other harmful pathogens.”

■Kildee then led the signing of a toned-down bipartisan letter to Obama urging the federal aid be “dispatched immediately” and requesting the federal government work with the state on why Legionnaires’ disease broke out in the Flint area in the past year and a half, resulting in 87 cases and 10 deaths.

The Snyder administration has been working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Environmental Protection Agency in investigating the spike in Legionnaires’ disease, which is a respiratory illness caused by a certain bacteria in warm fresh water that leads to pneumonia. State officials said it is unclear if there is a connection with contaminated water to the outbreak in Genesee County.

The letter was signed by Michigan’s 16-member delegation of Republicans and Democrats except GOP U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township.

■U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and other GOP and Democratic committee leaders sent a letter Friday to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy requesting a briefing on Flint’s drinking water by next Friday.

“We urgently request a briefing on these matters and on EPA’s anticipated role as the situation in Flint continues to unfold,” according to the letter.

Major disaster declarations typically follow severe weather events, earthquakes or wildfires, which can be caused by humans or nature. Of the 362 major disaster declarations since 2010, a 2013 fertilizer plant explosion in Texas that killed 15 people was the only exception, according to a review of online FEMA records.

While the president can declare any incident that causes damage beyond the ability of state and local governments to handle as a major disaster, doing so in the case of a man-made public health crisis like the one in Flint would be rare, if not unprecedented.

The White House’s promise of a speedy review hinted that it considers Flint’s contaminated water a serious situation.

“An expedited major disaster can be declared if the disaster is of such severity and magnitude (like Hurricane Sandy) that formal preliminary damage assessments are not necessary to determine the need for supplemental federal assistance to a state,” said Cassie Ringsdorf, a spokeswoman for the FEMA regional office in Chicago.

The president last declared a major disaster in Michigan following severe storms and flooding in Metro Detroit in August 2014. The federal government has approved or obligated more than $30 million in individual and public assistance.

The federal aid request was followed by Snyder’s request that a state Receivership Transition Advisory Board, which continues to monitor Flint finances, transfer to Weaver executive authority that had been reserved for the city administrator under former Emergency Manager Jerry Ambrose.

While there is no clear precedent for the governor’s push to provide Weaver with more authority while Flint remains under receivership, Bernstein pointed out that the emergency manager law is still less than three years old and designed to be flexible.

“There’s a lot of quirks with the Flint situation, that’s true, but remember that there isn’t going to be any specific playbook that fits every city,” he said.

Even if more power is transferred to the mayor, the Flint advisory board is expected to continue ensuring the city does not return to bad habits, Bernstein said.


Detroit News Staff Writer Candice Williams contributed.