Health International Life

Political fallout from Flint, Michigan, water crisis spreads

Image: The top of a water tower is seen at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama is determined to find out what went wrong in the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, officials said on Wednesday, and environmental regulators were set to provide Congress with information about their role.

Blame is swirling after a switch in the water supply to the city north of Detroit led to elevated levels of lead in drinking water.

“The president is absolutely determined to figure out what went wrong, generally speaking,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One. Schultz noted that the matter was under investigation.

Facing protests, lawsuits and calls for his resignation, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, apologized to the city’s residents on Tuesday and called for the state to spend $28 million on fixes.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while saying it was reviewing its handling of the crisis and could have acted faster to inform the state of what measures it’should take, also blamed the state on Tuesday. It said the agency’s oversight was hampered by “failures and resistance at the state and local levels.”

Flint, financially strapped and under a state-appointed emergency manager, switched to Flint River water in April 2014 from a Detroit-run water system to save money.

Complaints about the water began within a month of the switch. But Flint did not return to Detroit water until October 2015 after tests showed elevated levels of lead, which can cause brain damage and other health problems, in Flint tap water and in some children. Corrosive water from the river, known locally as a dumping ground, caused more lead to leach from Flint pipes than Detroit water did.

“This is something nobody should have to deal with. Everybody should have clean water … Resources are being sent to Flint as we speak,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver told a conference in Washington on Wednesday.

She was interrupted by a protester shouting “I need some water.”

In his state of the state speech on Tuesday, Snyder said federal, state and local leaders had failed residents.

He asked Michigan lawmakers to authorize $28 million in spending on diagnostic tests, health treatment for children and adolescents, replacement of old fixtures in Flint schools and day care centers and a study of the city’s water pipes.

Snyder, who has faced questions on how soon he acted after learning about the water problem in Flint, promised to release his Flint-related emails from 2014 and 2015 on Wednesday.

A group of bipartisan lawmakers including Michigan Republican Fred Upton, of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote last week to Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy, requesting a briefing about the Flint contamination. That briefing to congressional staffers was scheduled for Thursday.

The House committee letter mentioned reports that said people in Flint have been exposed to dangerous biological pathogens and chemicals in the drinking water. Although Flint has now switched back to Detroit’s water system, lead levels in the city’s water are still elevated.

Several lawsuits have been filed in the case. The latest on Tuesday asked a judge to stop Flint from issuing shutoff notices to residents, who are still receiving bills for water declared undrinkable.

(This version of the story has been refiled to remove duplicated words Michigan Governor in paragraph 4)

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Additional reporting by David Shepardson, Lacey Johnson, Ian Simpson; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Frances Kerry)

Copyright 2015 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.


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