Gov. Snyder to Flint Residents: Government Failed You
By Paul Egan and Kathleen Gray
Facing the biggest crisis of his five years as governor, demands for his resignation and even calls for his criminal prosecution, Gov. Rick Snyder accepted major responsibility for the Flint drinking water catastrophe in his State of the State address Tuesday and set out short-term plans and long-term promises to put things right.
"I'm sorry and I will fix it," Snyder said near the opening of his 50-minute speech, directly addressing the residents of Flint. "You did not create this crisis, and you do not deserve this."
"Government failed you at the federal, state and local level," Snyder said. "We need to make sure this never happens again in any Michigan city."
Snyder pledged to release his 2014 and 2015 e-mails related to the crisis, which many groups have requested as a step toward greater transparency. The governor's office is exempt from the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.
Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said officials are uploading the e-mails, and he hopes they will be posted on the governor's website sometime Wednesday morning. They will represent all e-mails sent to or from the governor regarding Flint water in 2014 and 2015, with only certain personal information possibly redacted, he said.
Murray said any e-mails sent or received on Snyder's personal e-mail account should also be covered, because the governor forwards all government-related e-mails to his government account.
Reaction was mixed. Democrats said they were outraged and expressed concern the e-mails Snyder releases will be incomplete and "cherry picked."
Republicans were much more supportive. "He owned up to it and he said we're going to fix it -- that's good," said Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek.
But Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-Meridian Township, said it took national media attention to focus Snyder and his administration on addressing the problem with Flint's water.
"It's good that there's a plan coming around, but it's a little late," Hertel said.
Laura Sullivan, a professor at Kettering University in Flint who was among a small group of city residents who pushed to get attention for the drinking water problem, said Snyder "sounded very sincere" and she believes the state is finally moving in the right direction on the crisis.
But Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said Snyder delivered "lip service and passing the buck" instead of "a comprehensive, actionable plan to make this right."
Snyder, a Republican, devoted almost the entire speech to the lead contamination of Flint's drinking water supply and steps he will take to address the health and educational needs of Flint children exposed to lead.
But he also highlighted the critical importance of finding a financial fix for Detroit Public Schools, while also highlighting the improved financial prospects of the City of Detroit a year after emerging from a Chapter 9 bankruptcy initiated and largely managed by the state.
"Detroit schools are in need of a transformational change," Snyder said. "Let's solve this problem and help the kids. The time to act is now and avoid court intervention."
Beyond Detroit Public Schools, Snyder announced a commission on 21st Century education, tasked with improving Michigan's school performance across the state. He said he wants the new commission to report by November.
But Snyder's main focus was the City of Flint and its drinking water.
Snyder used the speech to thank pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Children's Hospital, who was in the audience in the House chamber, and Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, who was not. The two professionals forced Michigan government to lift a cloak of denial and finally acknowledge, around Oct. 1, a problem of lead leaching into Flint drinking water that began in April of 2014.
Snyder gave no signs he plans to resign from office with a little less than three years remaining in his final term, saying he wants to stay on and put things right, aides said.
Flint initiatives Snyder highlighted, either in the speech or in documents released at the time of his speech, include:
* Ramping up the number of Michigan National Guard troops in Flint from fewer than 100 currently to about 200, with plans for the troops to staff water stations while the Red Cross and other volunteers complete visits to all of the city's roughly 33,000 households this week.
* Appealing President Barack Obama's refusal to declare a federal disaster in Flint when he declared a federal emergency there on Saturday. A federal disaster declaration, which is reserved for natural disasters, would make greater amounts of federal funding available.
* Asking the Legislature for a $28.5-million supplemental appropriation to cover immediate Flint needs, such as the cost of bottled water and filters and troops from the Michigan National Guard, which Snyder mobilized Jan. 12 after declaring a state of emergency on Jan. 5.
* Including in that appropriation about $2 million to support Flint utilities and stop any threatened shut-off of water customers, while the state and the city work on a broader plan to address the problem of Flint residents being billed for water they can't drink.
* Also included is close to $1 million to increase the number of nurses and other health professionals in Flint-area schools and about $120,000 as a first step in expanding capacity at child and adolescent health centers.
* Expanding age eligibility for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) healthy nutrition program. Experts say good nutrition minimizes the impact of lead exposure.
* Testing and replacing faucets and other fixtures at schools and other public facilities that could be potential sources for the leaching of lead.
A key Republican pledged quick action on the supplemental request for Flint. Rep. Al Pscholka, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said after the speech he expects the bill will clear both his committee and the full House on Wednesday.
Snyder officials stressed that the supplemental appropriation for 2016 is only a first step in addressing Flint's needs. They said Budget Director John Roberts is reworking the 2016-17 budget that Snyder will present on Feb. 10 to address longer-term health and infrastructure needs.
"This will not be the last budget request for Flint," Snyder said.
Democratic lawmakers wore blue scarves or clothing to symbolize support for Flint. They also wore buttons that said "What did you know and when did you know it?" in reference to Snyder, and "No exemptions for transparency."
Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager when, in a cost-cutting move, the city temporarily switched its source of drinking water from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to Flint River water treated at the Flint water treatment plant. State Department of Environmental Quality officials have admitted they made a disastrous mistake when they failed to require the addition of needed corrosion control chemicals. As a result, the corrosive Flint River water caused lead to leach into the drinking water, though where any leaching occurred and how severe it was depended on many factors, such as what type of line connected a home to the street and what the internal plumbing fixtures were like.
Snyder said the story began when the Flint City Council voted in 2013 to switch from Detroit water to join communities supporting a new Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron. But Dayne Walling, who was mayor then, said at the time of the vote the city intended to stay on Detroit water until the new pipeline was completed. Instead, Flint emergency manager Ed Kurtz opted to use the Flint River as an interim supply when Flint and Detroit -- both under state-appointed emergency managers at the time -- could not agree on an interim price.
Ananich said the amount of money in the supplemental bill is "a start, but we're going to be in this for the long haul."
"I hope the Legislature and the governor understand that we all have a responsibility to fix this problem and it's going to be important for all of us to focus on getting it right whatever that dollar amount might be," Ananich said.
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, commended Snyder's speech.
"The crisis in Flint demonstrates a need for greater accountability and reforms to our state government systems," Meekhof said. "Bloated, unresponsive bureaucracy does not meet the needs of our citizens.
"The citizens of Michigan deserve a responsive, competent team of employees and administrators that value accountability, safety and customer service above red tape."
Meekhof also said Republicans in the Senate are ready to tackle reform of Detroit Public Schools.
Hanna-Attisha, the Hurley Children's Hospital pediatrician whose findings of elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint children were first dismissed but later embraced by the Snyder administration, said "our community has been through so much, but Flint is loyal and resilient and we hope this is just a speed bump.
"We've become the forgotten city," Hanna-Attisha said. "We need to garner the attention and resources to build a better Flint."
Among the demonstrators outside the Capitol before the speech Tuesday were three residents of Battle Creek, Snyder's home town. Al and Bonnie DiGennaro traveled to Lansing with a protest sign and their neighbor, Veroneze Strader.
Al DiGennaro said he wants to see Snyder announce a plan to test Flint children and remediate the damage. "This is a crisis," he said.
DiGennaro's wife Bonnie said she doesn't want to hear talk about the need for more studies. "It's criminal that people in the administration knew the water was full of lead and were telling people it was safe to drink," she said.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said after the speech that $28.5 million "is a fraction of the money city residents have paid for poisoned water that they cannot drink."
"Flint deserves an immediate response equal to the gravity of this ongoing public health emergency," and "the state must do more," Kildee said in a news release.
Staff writer Todd Spangler contributed to this report.
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