By Todd Spangler
President Barack Obama met Tuesday with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to discuss high concentrations of lead found in her city's drinking water, offering continued logistical and technical support for efforts to address the crisis and dispatching an official from the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate federal response.
In a summary of the meeting, the White House said Obama "heard firsthand how the residents of Flint are dealing with the ongoing public health crisis and the challenges that still exist for the city."
Earlier Tuesday, Weaver also met with White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Jerry Abramson and "conveyed personal stories from residents and businesses and the need for trust to be restored."
Any guarantee of large amounts of federal financial support to address the circumstances in Flint, where children have been tested with high lead levels in their blood and where the state has asked for tens of millions in disaster aid to remove lead service lines and other infrastructure contributing to the problem, was not forthcoming, however.
During the daily briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest noted the appointment of Dr. Nicole Lurie, HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, to lead federal response in Flint but reiterated that the federal response would be limited, for now at least, to available resources.
Lurie will travel to Flint on Wednesday as the president goes to Detroit for unrelated events, touring the North American International Auto Show and meeting with residents about improving conditions in the city.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies are already involved in the response in Flint and will continue to be, the White House said. Several agencies have already been offering technical assistance and helping to identify at-risk populations to make sure they have help.
FEMA has been providing bottled water -- some 71,000 liters to date -- and filters to Flint residents.
"The situation is anything but being ignored by the White House," Earnest said. He added that he was aware of a debate over whether race played a role in the state and local response, but said, "I'm quite limited in what I can say about that because the Department of Justice has indicated there is an ongoing investigation into that matter."
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has taken most of the blame to date for the situation in Flint, where the water source was changed in 2014 to the Flint River without adding required corrosion controls, which in turn allowed for more lead from old service lines to leach into water.
During a Democratic presidential nomination debate on Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont called for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's resignation, citing bureaucratic mistakes that allowed indications that some Flint residents' lead levels were high as long ago as last February to go unheeded.
Also during that debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted the high levels of poverty in Flint and the fact that its population is largely African American. saying, "I'll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action."
"Obviously, the city of Flint and the citizens of Flint are going through a very difficult time," Earnest said at Tuesday's press briefing, declining to take a political stance on the issue but saying the Obama administration would help as much as it could with available resources.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also been the target of criticism in the crisis, with e-mails showing it had been informed of extremely high lead levels in at least one Flint residence as long ago as last February. There were other indications that the agency tried to stop wide circulation of a draft report that showed those high lead levels, but other reports showed that MDEQ may have misinformed EPA whether corrosion controls were present in Flint.
"What happened in Flint should not have happened," the EPA said in a statement to the Free Press, noting that while it regulates drinking water under federal law, primary responsibility falls to Michigan. "While EPA worked within the framework of the law to repeatedly and urgently communicate the steps the state needed to take to properly treat its water, those necessary actions were not taken as quickly as they should have been."
"EPA's ability to oversee MDEQ's management of that situation was impacted by failures and resistance at the state and local levels to work with us in a forthright, transparent and proactive manner consistent with the seriousness of the risks to public health," the statement continued. "We must ensure this situation never happens again."
Obama approved an emergency designation for Genesee County and Flint over the weekend, though that does not free up as much in federal financial resources as a major disaster declaration, which Snyder also requested. Earnest explained during the briefing that the statute FEMA operates under only allows for that disaster designation in cases of natural disasters, fires and explosions.
Snyder has appealed that decision but, if it stands as expected, it could limit the aid available to rebuild Flint's infrastructure. The governor had been looking for more than $50 million for that purpose and more than $90 million overall; funding under emergency declarations is typically capped at $5 million though more can be spent if the president reports it to Congress.
HHS said in its release Tuesday that the goal of the federal response will be "to help state and local leaders identify the size and scope of the problem and work with them to make and execute a plan for mitigation of the short- and long-term health effects of lead exposure."
Following the appointment of Lurie to coordinate the federal response, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, contacted HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell to express the "urgency of the situation."
"She assured me that they want to work with Michigan to get this done right ... and quickly," Upton said. "They intend to do everything appropriate to resolve the issue and I intend to continue to work with all parties on behalf of the residents of Flint, and the entire state."
Upton has also asked EPA head Gina McCarthy to explain to the committee what happened in Flint and EPA's role in investigating it.
Weaver, meanwhile, also said Tuesday she has had direct conversations with Clinton in recent days and gave what amounted to an endorsement of the former secretary of state, saying she was the "only candidate to reach out" to Flint.
"I want Hillary," she said.
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press