Obama: ‘We will have the backs of Flint’s people’

Melissa Nann Burke The Detroit News

President Barack Obama personally weighed in Wednesday on Flint’s contaminated water crisis, promising “we will have the backs of Flint's people.”

The president on Saturday declared a federal emergency in the Genesee County city that freed up to $5 million in emergency aid, but he rejected Gov. Rick Snyder’s request for a $96 million major disaster declaration because Flint’s disaster is man-made.

This week, the Democratic Obama administration tapped a Health and Human Services official to lead the federal recovery effort in Flint, joining officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal departments in the city. Snyder, a Republican, has deployed 200 Michigan National Guard soldiers to help distribute bottled water, filters and other items.

“I know if I were a parent (in Flint) I know I would be beside myself,” Obama said in Detroit early in his remarks that were supposed to focus on the Big Three automakers’ recovery. “It is a reminder of why you can’t shortchange basic services that we provide to people.”

An independent task force appointed by Snyder blamed a “culture of passivity” in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for misreading federal rules on toxic metals in drinking water and failing to insist that corrosion controls be applied to the city’s drinking water drawn from the Flint River.

In an interview with CBS News that is scheduled to air Sunday, Obama called the Flint situation “inexcusable.”

“What is inexplicable and inexcusable is once people figured out there was a problem and that there was lead in the water,” he said during the Wednesday interview in Michigan, according to a CBS press release.

“The notion that immediately families were not notified, things were not shut down — that shouldn’t happen anywhere. It’s also an indication that sometimes we downplay the role that an effective government has to play in protecting public health and safety of people and clearly the system broke down.”

Snyder didn’t declare a state emergency until early January, when state officials made more clear that the city’s water was not safe to drink.

Under a state-appointed emergency manager, the city switched to the river water from the Detroit water system’s Lake Huron in April 2014 when it protested what it considered the city of Detroit’s expensive water rates. The Flint River was supposed to be a temporary source until Flint joined a regional water authority that is scheduled to be completed later this year.

Experts have said applying the corrosion controls would have stopped lead connections from leaching the toxic metals into the drinking water and exposing children to them. To date, the water crisis has not been blamed on cost-cutting.

Obama does not plan to visit Flint during his five-hour scheduled visit to Detroit.