Snyder weighs declaring water emergency in Flint
Gov. Rick Snyder is considering whether to declare an emergency for Flint’s contaminated water a week after apologizing to residents for the state’s handling of Flint’s water crisis.
But Michigan faces hurdles to getting federal relief, including forgiveness for state loans to Flint involving drinking-water infrastructure improvements that are covered by federal rules.
Even before any official declaration can be made, Snyder’s office said Monday that state officials “are recognizing this as an emergency and are working with city and county leaders to coordinate efforts, streamline communication and tap all available resources at the state’s control.”
Flint residents have been plagued by water issues since April 2014, when they began receiving drinking water drawn from the Flint River. Immediate concerns over odd tastes, smells and coloring gave way to more serious worries late this summer when rising levels of lead were detected in the blood of the city’s children.
On Monday, the Genesee County Board of Commissioners declared a state of emergency in the city amid concerns about lead lingering in the water. The move came three weeks after Flint Mayor Karen Weaver made a similar declaration for her city.
“Due to the uniqueness of this situation, we have to look at all possible options to help Flint residents,” a Snyder spokesman said Monday.
“This is an important step in the process, and the governor should make a swift decision,” state Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said in a Monday statement.
An emergency declaration makes the city eligible for relief funding from the federal government.
But some federal funding appears to be off-limits.
The Environmental Protection Agency has said loans such as the $21 million owed by Flint are not eligible for forgiveness. The loans came from a state-managed fund at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that is governed by federal law and regulations.
An April letter from EPA regional administrator Susan Hedman to U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, says forgiving the principal on Flint’s four loans would be considered an additional loan subsidy, which is not allowed in part because of when the loans were issued (1999 through 2001).
Kildee is working on changing some appropriations language at issue to allow loan forgiveness, which his office says would free up money for Flint to invest in replacing lead service lines.
The EPA has said Michigan may issue new forgivable loans through the federally funded Drinking Water State Revolving Fund that may be used for replacing old private water service lines that are leaching lead into the city’s water, according to Kildee’s office.
Now the eyes of Genesee County residents turn toward Lansing in the hopes Snyder will support giving Flint emergency status.
“After the County Commission’s vote today, the Michigan State Police’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division is working with the Genesee County Emergency Management Coordinator to gather information about the resources needed for a governor’s declaration,” Snyder’s office said in a statement.
“The state police have been closely engaged in the situation since the beginning, meeting with both county and city leaders to guide them through state and federal laws regarding the emergency management process.”
A Flint spokesperson said Monday city officials are hoping for answers later this week.
“On Thursday, the mayor is planning to meet with the governor,” said Kristen Moore, a spokesperson for the city administrator. “Hopefully we’ll know what his direction is at that point.”
Flint officials worked for years to negotiate better rates with its previous supplier, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Frustrated with the failure to get a better deal, they began to look elsewhere.
In 2013, with Flint under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, the city decided to create a new regional water authority — the Karegondi — which will be completed later this year. In the interim between severing ties with the Detroit water system and Karegondi’s start, state officials opted to use water from the Flint River.
The river water proved to be more corrosive than the Lake Huron water provided by Detroit’s system. In addition, the state’s failure to require corrosion control measures is believed to have allowed lead from old pipes and plumbing in Flint homes to leach in to drinking water.
How Michigan processes requests to declare a state of emergency for a city:
■A municipality can declare a “local state of emergency” to ensure local resources are being fully used.
■Additional assistance can be requested through the Michigan State Police.
■Michigan’s State Police, Emergency Management and Homeland Security divisions will review a city’s situation before making a recommendation to the governor.
■The governor can declare a state of emergency, which clears the way for state agencies to offer support to the municipality.
■If state resources are not considered enough, the governor can request federal help through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
■FEMA officials ultimately recommend to the president whether to approve disaster aid.