By Paul Egan
Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency for Flint and Genesee County Tuesday as a result of the contaminated drinking water crisis, on the same day the U.S. Attorney's Office confirmed it is investigating the contamination of Flint's drinking water supply.
Snyder's office issued a news release late Tuesday saying the governor made the declaration "due to the ongoing health and safety issues caused by lead in the city of Flint's drinking water" and activated the state Emergency Operations Center.
Flint's drinking water became contaminated with lead in 2014 after switching its supply source from Lake Huron to the more polluted and corrosive Flint River. The move -- a cost-cutting measure while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager -- resulted in a spike in lead levels in children, which causes permanent brain damage. A recent preliminary report from a task force appointed by Snyder placed most of the blame on the state Department of Environmental Quality and prompted the Dec. 29 resignation of DEQ Director Dan Wyant.
Although the state assisted Flint in switching its drinking water supply back to Lake Huron water from Flint River water in October, there are concerns that lead problems persist due to damage the corrosive river water caused to the water distribution system.
"By declaring a state of emergency, Snyder has made available all state resources in cooperation with local response and recovery operations," the news release said. The declaration authorizes the emergency management and homeland security division of the Michigan State Police to coordinate state efforts.
"The health and welfare of Flint residents is a top priority, and we're committed to a coordinated approach with resources from state agencies to address all aspects of this situation," Snyder said in the release. "Working in full partnership with the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, all levels of government and water quality experts, we will find both short-term and long-term solutions to ensure the health and safety of Flint residents."
The emergency declaration also sets the stage for possible federal aid. Under the law, the governor can ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to conduct a damage assessment that would be used as a basis for determining eligibility for federal aid.
"If state and local resources are unable to cope with the emergency, the governor may request federal assistance," Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said. "We will continue to look for all avenues for potential assistance for Flint as part of our collaborative efforts to protect the health and welfare of children and all residents."
The emergency declaration was criticized as overdue, but Snyder's office said the governor needed a formal request from the county to act.
Genesee County declared an emergency on Monday and asked the state to do the same. The City of Flint has been under an emergency declaration since Dec. 14.
The Rev. Allen Overton, chairman of the Coalition for Clean Water in Flint, said he agrees the governor needed the local declarations to act. "This is a good day for the City of Flint," Overton said.
"We're going to need some major financing to fix the infrastructure in the City of Flint," he said. "Until that happens, we're not going to be able to do a lot, including drinking the water."
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, said he hopes the emergency declaration will mean more resources to address "an ongoing public health emergency."
State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said he now hopes "the administration will truly take responsibility for the disaster they created. It is beyond frustrating that the city I love, and the people who live in it, had to declare it destroyed before the state would act with any urgency."
Meanwhile, Gina Balaya, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit, said Tuesday her office is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on an investigation. She would not say whether the investigation is a criminal or civiI matter.
"We're just confirming that we're looking into it," Balaya told the Free Press.
She said the U.S. Attorney's Office doesn't normally confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation, but it made an exception in this case because of the number of inquiries it was receiving from Flint residents. She would not place a time line on the investigation.
"In an effort to address the concerns of Flint residents, the United States Attorney's Office for the eastern district of Michigan is working closely with the EPA in the investigation of the contamination of the City of Flint's water supply," she said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office is an arm of the U.S. Justice Department. There have been numerous calls for a Justice Department investigation into the lead contamination of Flint's drinking water while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, resulting in a spike in lead levels among Flint children. Lead can cause irreversible brain damage and has been linked to behavioral problems.
Murray said an administration official was notified about the investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office Tuesday morning.
"We will cooperate fully with any requests from the U.S. Attorney's Office as it looks into Flint's water challenges." Murray said.
He said "Snyder has appointed an independent panel that is reviewing all state, local and federal actions related to Flint's water challenges, and we are committed to working with Mayor Karen Weaver and county leaders as we focus on protecting the health of Flint residents and all Michiganders."
Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor and a professor at Wayne State University Law School, said if the investigation relates to potential wrongdoing by the city or the state, it is almost certainly a civil investigation, which could result in a consent agreement between the public entity and the Justice Department. If the investigation relates to possible wrongdoing by individuals, it could potentially be a criminal investigation, Henning said.
The federal agencies have subpoena powers to obtain records they want to examine, he said.
Former Flint Mayor James Sharp was among those who called for a Justice Department investigation.
"I am very happy about it; it's a necessary step," he said Tuesday.
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