Karen Weaver, the newly elected mayor of Flint, Mich., stopped drinking the tap water there nearly two years ago, as soon as the city began drawing its water from the murky Flint River to save money.
She thought the decision to draw water from the river — a tough call in a poor city run by a state-appointed emergency manager — was a bad one. And her husband stopped drinking it, too.
“It’s sad that I would say, ‘Thank God my kids are grown and not there,’ ” Weaver said Wednesday at a meeting of the country’s mayors in Washington. “But everybody can’t say that. And we shouldn’t have to say that.”
Since that April 2014 decision, thousands of children in Flint have been exposed to water contaminated with lead. Now, President Obama, who met with Weaver on Tuesday, has declared a federal emergency that frees up to $5 million in federal aid. Obama, who visited Detroit on Wednesday but did not go to Flint, said, “I told her that we are going to have her back and all the people of Flint’s back as they work their way through this terrible tragedy.”
Gov. Rick Snyder (R), in his State of the State speech this week, has apologized, and he promised to do what is necessary to fix the situation.
But the frustrated mayor said the city is still not getting enough money, particularly from the state, to repair infrastructure that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and to treat children who may suffer long-running effects.
“There’s money there, and Flint needs to be made a priority about how these funds are distributed,” she said of the state of Michigan. “This is something that nobody should have to deal with. Everybody should have clean water. It’s ironic when you live in the ‘Great Lake State’ and you don’t have access to clean water.”
The corrosive water from the Flint River caused lead from pipes to leach into the drinking supply, damaging the city’s infrastructure and exposing residents to levels of lead that researchers say can cause cardiovascular and neurological problems. The city switched back to using water from nearby Detroit in October, but the supply remains unsafe to drink.
Residents immediately began to complain in 2014 about the look and smell of the water, and researchers at Virginia Tech last year published results showing alarming levels of lead in water samples. Snyder, however, did not declare a state of emergency in Flint until Jan. 5. He mobilized National Guard troops to help distribute water a week later.
Snyder said in his State of the State address Tuesday night that he was asking state lawmakers for $28 million to pay for bottled water, filters, testing, and the treatment of children with high lead levels. He also vowed to release his emails related to Flint from 2014 and 2015.
“To you, the people of Flint, I want to say tonight, as I have before, I am sorry, and I will fix it,” Snyder, elected in 2010 and reelected in 2014, said during his speech, one of multiple times he addressed Flint residents and expressed contrition.
Although protesters have called for his resignation, Snyder said that he will be working on this situation “for as long as it takes to make this right.”
Speaking on Air Force One on the way to Detroit on Wednesday, White House principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said Obama is “deeply engaged” in the effort to help Flint, adding that “he wants to make sure we are marshaling all the resources of the federal government.”
When asked if Snyder should resign over his handling of the crisis, Schultz said, “Our view is right now everybody should be focused on the actual problem.”
Schultz did not comment on allegations that the Environmental Protection Agency could have disclosed the results of its water testing earlier, but said, “What I can say is clearly the notification process is part of the problem here and the president is absolutely determined to figure out what went wrong, generally speaking.”
The president has appointed a coordinator for federal aid to the city: Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services.
An independent researcher at Virginia Tech has accused the EPA’s Midwest regional administrator of failing to disclose findings last summer that the water had dangerously high lead levels. EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said in an email that the agency did not release the memo in question because it “contained confidential personal and enforcement-sensitive information,” but that it was “immediately circulated” to the regional team “that was working to require Flint to implement corrosion control” last summer.
In Flint, Weaver said weary residents were skeptical of the state’s response and the validity of tests conducted on their water supply. “That’s been one of the issues with the city of Flint: broken trust and who do we believe?” she said.
Mark Berman contributed to this report.