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Obama Declares Flint Water Crisis an Emergency

President Barack Obama on Saturday declared a federal emergency in Flint, freeing up to $5 million in federal aid to immediately assist with the public health crisis, but he denied Gov. Rick Snyder's request for a disaster declaration.

By Paul Egan and Todd Spangler

President Barack Obama on Saturday declared a federal emergency in Flint, freeing up to $5 million in federal aid to immediately assist with the public health crisis, but he denied Gov. Rick Snyder's request for a disaster declaration.

A disaster declaration would have made larger amounts of federal funding available more quickly to help Flint residents whose drinking water is contaminated with lead. But under federal law, only natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods are eligible for disaster declarations, federal and state officials said. The lead contamination of Flint's drinking water is a manmade catastrophe.

The president's actions authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate responses and cover 75% of the costs for much-needed water, filters, filter cartridges and other items for residents, capped initially at $5 million.  The president also offered assistance in finding other available federal assistance, a news release Saturday from the White House said.

Snyder, who on Thursday night asked Obama for federal financial aid in the crisis through declarations of both a federal emergency and a federal disaster, said in a news release Saturday he appreciates Obama granting the emergency request "and supporting Flint during this critical situation."

"I have pledged to use all state resources possible to help heal Flint, and these additional resources will greatly assist in efforts under way to ensure every resident has access to clean water resources," he said.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint,  welcomed the emergency declaration and issued a statement:

"I welcome the president's quick action in support of the people of Flint after months of inaction by the governor," Kildee said.  "The residents and children of Flint deserve every resource available to make sure that they have safe water and are able to recover from this terrible manmade disaster created by the state."

On Friday, Kildee led a bipartisan effort in support of the request for federal assistance. Kildee had long called for  Snyder to request federal aid.

Typically, federal aid for an emergency is capped at $5 million, though the president can commit more if he goes through Congress.

Snyder's application said as much as $55 million is needed in the near term to repair damaged lead service lines and as much as $41 million to pay for several months of water distribution and providing residents with testing, water filters and cartridges.

In what's become a huge government scandal, garnering headlines across the country and around the world, Flint's drinking water became contaminated with lead after the city temporarily switched its supply source in 2014 from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to more corrosive and polluted Flint River water, treated at the Flint water treatment plant.

The switch was made as a cost-cutting move while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. The state Department of Environmental Quality has acknowledged a mistake in failing to require the addition of needed corrosion-control chemicals to the water. That caused lead, which causes brain damage and other health problems in children, to leach into the water from pipes and fixtures.

Resident complaints about the taste, odor and appearance of the water, which began immediately after the switch, were largely ignored by state officials. The state also dismissed reports of elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint children from pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha before for the first time publicly acknowledging a problem in October 2015.

Snyder declared a state of emergency Jan. 5 and mobilized the National Guard Jan. 12 but has been widely and strongly criticized for not moving more quickly.

State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said federal assistance makes him "more confident ... Flint families will begin receiving the help they deserve."

"We need to remain committed and ensure the state fully accepts responsibility in this crisis and does everything they can to correct the long-term impact on our community," Ananich said in a news release Saturday.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said in a news release Saturday she appreciates "the president's quick action in responding to the urgent needs of families in Flint."

"I will continue to push for federal resources to address this crisis, and for a commitment of resources from the state to meet the immediate needs of the community and to set aside a future fund  to address the long-term needs of children and families," Stabenow said.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, also welcomed the announcement and said he will work to support further federal support for Flint residents. However, "the State of Michigan and Gov. Snyder must step up and provide the necessary resources to deal with the long-term effect of water contamination," Peters said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, praised Obama for moving "with unprecedented speed to respond, within 36 hours of receiving the request."

(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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