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World & Nation

‘I let you down,’ Michigan’s governor says of drinking water crisis

Flint water

Mike Ahrens holds a sign in Ann Arbor, Mich., to protest the water crisis in Flint.

(Junfu Han / Ann Arbor News)

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said he has failed residents of the beleaguered city of Flint but pledged to take new steps to fix the town’s drinking water crisis, starting with committing millions in state funding and deploying more National Guard members.

The second-term Republican, who devoted most of his annual State of the State speech Tuesday night to the emergency in Flint, also pledged greater transparency. He said he would release on Wednesday his own emails regarding Flint’s water, which became contaminated with lead when the city switched its water source in 2014 as a cost-cutting measure.

“I’m sorry most of all that I let you down,” Snyder said in the 49-minute address, as hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside the Capitol. “You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth, and I have a responsibility to tell the truth.”

Michigan water crisis

Protestors rally outside the state Capitol during Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's State of the State address on Tuesday.

(Sean Proctor / The Flint Journal)
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The contamination with lead — which can lead to behavior problems and learning disabilities in children and kidney ailments in adults — has left Flint residents unable to drink unfiltered tap water. The National Guard, state employees, local authorities and volunteers have been distributing lead tests, filters and bottled water. Snyder aides pledged that by the end of the week officials would visit every household in Flint to ensure they have water filters.

Democrats said Snyder only recently admitted the magnitude of the fiasco, at least three months too late.

“This is the kind of disaster, the kind of failure to deliver basic services that hurts people’s trust in government,” state House Minority Leader Tim Greimel said.

In his speech, Snyder committed $28 million more in the short term to pay for more filters, bottled water, school nurses, intervention specialists, testing and monitoring — on top of $10.6 million allocated in the fall. The money also would replace plumbing fixtures in schools with lead problems and could help Flint with unpaid water bills.

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Flint River

The Flint River, which cuts through the city's downtown, is central to the drinking-water crisis.

(Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

A top advisor to President Obama -- who is traveling Wednesday to Detroit  -- said the federal government is doing what it can to assist and called the city’s tainted water a “public health crisis.”

The new round of funding, which requires approval from the GOP-led Legislature, is intended as another short-range step while Snyder works to get a better handle on the long-range costs. He plans to make a bigger request in his February budget proposal.

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Snyder, a former venture capitalist and computer executive who took office in 2011 billing himself as a practical decision-maker and a “tough nerd,” has rejected calls for his resignation. He has previously apologized for regulatory failures and for an underwhelming initial response and on Tuesday outlined a timeline of the “catastrophe” dating to 2013, and blamed it on failures at the federal, state and local level.

The crisis began when Flint, about an hour’s drive from Detroit, switched its water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in 2014 to save money while under state financial management. Michigan’s top environmental regulator Dan Wyant resigned over the failure to ensure that the Flint River water was properly treated to keep lead from pipes from leaching into the water.

Elevated blood-lead levels were found in two city zip codes.

Flint water

Flint residents Marcus Shelton, left, Roland Young and Darius Martin walk on an ice-covered street as they retrieve free water from a nearby church.

(Jake May / Flint Journal)
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The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended the address, said Snyder’s contrition “does not mitigate the crime that has been committed.” But Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof called Snyder a “real leader who took responsibility even though he did not cause the situation.”

The U.S. Justice Department is helping the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate, and GOP state Atty. Gen. Bill Schuette has opened his own inquiry, which could focus on whether environmental laws were broken or if there was official misconduct. The EPA is under scrutiny for its role, too.

Retired nurse Lynn Hier of the northwestern Detroit suburb of New Baltimore joined the protest outside the statehouse on Tuesday. She called on Snyder to fire the district’s state-appointed emergency manager, Darnell Earley, because he also was an emergency manager in Flint at the time of the water switch.

“He’s not going to be anyone that anybody trusts,” Hier said.

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