Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) declared a state of emergency in Flint because of high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water. The action came hours after the U.S. Justice Department told reporters that it is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the situation.
Snyder, in his declaration, said, “The damaged water infrastructure and leaching of lead into the city’s water caused damage to public and private water infrastructure, and has either caused or threatened to cause elevated blood lead levels, especially in the population of children and pregnant women, and causing a potential immediate threat to public health and safety and disrupting vital community services.”
With this declaration, it will be possible for Snyder to request federal aid should he find that state and local resources are insufficient.
The city’s water troubles began in 2014, after officials decided to change Flint’s water source from the Detroit system, which draws from Lake Huron, to the Flint River. According to MLive.com, it is unclear whether responsibility for the decision lies in the hands of the city or the state, but it was forecast that switching to Flint River water would save the city about $5 million during a period of financial emergency.
In April 2014, just days after the change was made, residents began remarking on the water’s cloudy appearance and foul odor.
By the next summer, parents were crowding into pediatricians’ offices, panicked by the thought that dangerous amounts of lead had entered their children’s bodies through the very fluid that was supposed to keep them alive.
Last September, their fears were confirmed: A study released by the city’s Hurley Medical Center found that the proportion of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood has nearly doubled since Flint switched its water source.
Jennifer Eisner, a public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed to The Washington Post that the state’s own testing produced similar findings to the Hurley study.
Following these discoveries, Flint returned to receiving its water through the Detroit-Lake Huron system in October. But now there are concerns that the river water did some damage to the water distribution system that must be dealt with, according to the Detroit Free Press, along with all the other health repercussions from the period before Flint switched back.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan reported that the U.S. attorney in Detroit was looking into the contamination in Flint and surrounding Genesee County. Gina Balaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, confirmed to the Free Press that “we’re looking into it,” declining to say whether it was being examined as a criminal or civil issue.
Dave Murray, a spokesman for the governor, told the Free Press that he will “cooperate fully” with the Justice Department’s investigation.
On Dec. 15, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency because of the water — a proclamation echoed by Genesee County Commissioners on Monday and Snyder on Tuesday.
In her declaration last month, Weaver made similar mentions of the public health hazards, citing the neurological side effects of lead poisoning as an imminent burden on the city’s special education services and juvenile justice system.
“Lead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as shortening or attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment,” according to the World Health Organization. “Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight, as well as minor malfunctions.”
These effects are believed to be irreversible.
Last week, following the resignation of his administration’s Department of Environmental Quality director, Snyder issued a public apology.
“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,” he said in a statement. “And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience, because Flint is not the only city with an aging infrastructure.
He added: “I know many Flint citizens are angry and want more than an apology. That’s why I’m taking the actions today to ensure a culture of openness and trust.”
The state is making personnel changes to Department of Environmental Quality and inviting outside scientists who have worked on the issue to become collaborators, Snyder said.
“There was a dark cloud hanging over this city,” Flint City Council President Kerry Nelson said after Snyder’s declaration Tuesday. “Now, I can see beams of light busting through.”
More from Morning Mix