Obama taps health-welfare agency to lead Flint effort

Karen Bouffard The Detroit News

The Obama administration has tapped the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help lead the federal coordination of emergency recovery efforts for Flint’s contaminated water, the agency said Tuesday.

President Barack Obama on Saturday declared a federal emergency in Flint, making $5 million in immediate aid available with the possibility of more assistance about which the president would need to alert Congress.

Health and Human Services officials will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which already has been helping Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration with coordinating help from other federal agencies.

“The goal of the federal response will be to help state and local leaders identify the size and scope of the problem, and work with them to make and execute a plan for mitigation of the short- and long-term health effects of lead exposure,” department Deputy Secretary Mary Wakefield said in a blog post. “HHS will have a team on the ground in Flint this week.”

Flint’s water has had elevated levels of lead after the corrosive Flint River water caused lead connections to leech into the drinking water. In mid-October, the city switched back to the Detroit water system’s Lake Huron for drinking water, but state officials still consider the drinking water unsafe.

Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, will travel to Flint Wednesday to start working with state and local officials, Wakefield said.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, on Tuesday reached out to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell to discuss how they can work together to help solve Flint’s crisis swiftly.

Burwell and Upton, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, reiterated the need to work closely with local, state and federal officials and pledged continued communication and cooperation in the coming days and weeks, according to Upton’s office.

“I expressed to Secretary Burwell the urgency of the situation and she assured me that they want to work with Michigan to get this done right … and quickly,” Upton said in a statement.

“They intend to do everything appropriate to resolve the issue, and I intend to continue to work with all parties on behalf of the residents of Flint and the entire state.”

Last week, Upton and other committee leaders sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy requesting a briefing on Flint’s drinking water. That bipartisan briefing is set for Thursday.