Columns

Snyder Apologizes, Blames Dirty Water on Michigan Environmental Department Breakdown

Michigan Democrats have a second issue for which they hope to roast Gov. Rick Snyder (R) over a fire of public outrage. The first was, and still is, Michigan’s terrible, pothole-filled roads. That is bad. But the new issue could be even more emotional: the poisoning of children.

Gov. Snyder, who was mentioned briefly as a GOP presidential primary candidate because of his perceived ability to just get things done without worrying about politics, had to apologize Dec. 29 for his administration’s inability to keep lead out of the drinking water of Flint, Mich.

A week later, Snyder declared a state of emergency for Flint and Genesee County, which means state officials decided local resources would not be enough to clean the water and keep it pure.

Snyder also forced the former head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Dan Wyant, out of office that day, as the Republican admitted it was because the DEQ botched the testing of Flint’s water that the children of Flint have been poisoned by lead in the water.

But that is not enough for the Obama administration. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Michigan confirmed it is investigating Flint’s water and how it got so bad.

“The reason we responded the way we did is in an effort to address the concerns of Flint residents, and we’re working with the EPA,” U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Gina Balaya said in a statement.

However, she would not talk about in which direction the investigation might be heading, or if it was focused on the Snyder administration’s performance.

Still, Snyder’s emergency declaration and the federal investigation by themselves are not going to clean the water that the people of Flint are drinking.

It’s not like the people of Flint, mainly blue-collar workers who worked for generations in the second home of auto giant General Motors, haven’t had their share of trouble. Detroit gets most of the publicity for being ruined by the collapse of the auto industry, but Flint is just as battle-scarred.

The Census Bureau showed nearly 42 percent of the 99,000 people in the city were struggling day to day in poverty. More than 12 percent of them had no health insurance and nearly 19 percent had not graduated high school.

Now this: bad water.

A task force appointed by Snyder in October, after a researcher noted increased lead levels in the blood of Flint children, issued an initial report that showed the bad water was the Michigan DEQ’s fault.

Snyder’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force used such phrases regarding the DEQ’s performance as “primary responsibility,” “failed in its responsibility” and “must be held accountable.”

Here’s where the task force found the breakdown in bureaucracy happened: A study in June showed there was lead in the city water that the people of Flint, and their children, were drinking. The old water pipe system is the problem. Lead is leaching into the water system from pipes, connections, and fixtures.

The June study concluded anti-corrosion chemicals should have been added to the water at its source, in the Flint River.

But the Department of Environmental Quality changed the report to show the water was safe to drink.

The Detroit Free Press reported the June study would have spurred state action to clean the water in the summer, if only the DEQ had not amended it.

“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,” Snyder said in a statement released Dec. 29.

Melissa Mays, who along with her three children drank bad water from their kitchen sink in Flint, told the Detroit News Snyder’s apology is more than a day late and a dollar short.

“This all should have happened a long time ago, and it’s also not enough,” she said.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver accepted Snyder’s apology.

“There is some accountability being put in place and that’s a good thing,” Weaver said. “That’s what is happening and I think that’s a good sign because it shows that our voices have been heard and that they will continue to be heard.”

Michigan officials have already allocated more than $10 million to go house-to-house handing out water filters, to keep testing the water and to try to come up with a way to clean the dirty, rust-colored liquid flowing out of every tap in Flint.

“I have directed both the departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services to invite every external scientist who has worked on this issue to be our partners in helping us improve Flint water,” Snyder said. “Let’s share research on water and blood lead level testing so we can arrive at accurate and mutually supported conclusions.”

Mayor Weaver may be somewhat placated, but Flint Journal editor Bryn Mickle isn’t accepting the apology or what passes for an official plan of action.

Mickle wrote, “Gov. Rick Snyder still doesn’t get it.”

“Unfortunately, Snyder left out some key details. Like, the fact that the state was in charge of Flint when this whole mess started. And is still in charge of Flint,” wrote Mickle. “The bottom line is that the state has been in charge of Flint operations since 2011 and continues to have final say on major decisions through a state-appointed oversight board.”

Mays and Mickle should not worry that Democrats like Rep. Sheldon Neeley, from Flint, will let Snyder slip the Flint water study on a bureaucratic shelf to gather dust.

“For months, the call has been public and aggressive for Dan Wyant to remove himself from his position, or have Gov. Rick Snyder do the deed for him,” Neeley said in a statement issued Dec. 29. “There are many culpable parties involved in the continued decline of health and safety during the water crisis in the city of Flint, and Wyant was just one figure in a menagerie of offenders.”

Democratic Sen. Jim Ananich said the best apology Snyder could offer would be to promise “this will never happen again.”

Gov. Snyder wasn’t ready to go that far, and he also had a warning for every other community in Michigan.

“Flint is not the only city,” Snyder said, “that has an aging infrastructure.”