By Jeff Mason and Timothy Gardner
DETROIT/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama pledged to offer support for the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan 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 financially-strapped city of 100,000 north of Detroit led to elevated levels of lead in drinking water.
“It is a reminder that we can’t shortchange the basic services we provide to our people,” Obama said about the crisis after visiting a car show in Detroit. “If I were a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kid’s health could be at risk.”
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.
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, under a state-appointed emergency manager, switched to Flint River water in April 2014 from the Lake Huron supply that Detroit uses to save money.
Complaints about the water began within a month of the move. 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,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver told a conference in Washington.
“They need to be much more aggressive in what’s going on with Flint,” Weaver said on CNN about the EPA’s response.
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 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.
MAJOR DISASTER APPEAL
Snyder, who has faced questions on how soon he acted after learning about the water problem in Flint, released his Flint-related emails from 2014 and 2015 on Wednesday.
He submitted an appeal to Obama for his denial of a major disaster declaration saying Flint faces a long-term threat and that such an order could bring additional help. Obama signed an emergency order on the same day he rejected the disaster declaration.
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 EPA 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.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Detroit, David Shepardson, Lacey Johnson, Ian Simpson; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Frances Kerry and Alan Crosby)
Photo: Michigan National Guard Staff Sergeant William Phillips (R) helps distribute bottled water to Flint residents at a fire station in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook