LANSING, Mich. — Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan issued a sweeping apology on Tuesday to the residents of Flint for a contaminated water supply. He pledged to promptly release his emails about the issue, and laid out more specifics than had previously been known about the state’s handling of the matter.
“I’m sorry, and I will fix it,” Mr. Snyder, a Republican, said in a State of the State address in which he took the unusual step of focusing on a painful issue that has consumed the state in recent weeks and has drawn condemnation from national politicians. “No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe. Government failed you — federal, state and local leaders — by breaking the trust you place in us.”
Mr. Snyder, who has long boasted of advocating pragmatic solutions over casting blame, was uncharacteristically blunt, contrite and emphatic. “I’m sorry most of all that I let you down,” he said. “You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth, and I have a responsibility to tell the truth.”
The scandal over the water in Flint has engulfed Mr. Snyder in the biggest crisis of his tenure and reverberated far beyond the state’s borders. In the last few days, it has drawn attention in the White House and prompted accusations that the state had ignored a health risk in a largely black city. Flint’s plight also emerged as an issue in Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate.
Gov. Rick Snyder
Al Goldis / Associated Press
The crisis has spawned multiple investigations, and has set local and state officials scrambling to find a remedy for the problem. Flint residents have been put at risk because of the high levels of lead leaching from water pipes, caused by a switch to less expensive water from the Flint River.
Mr. Snyder cited repeated missteps by members of his administration, including misunderstanding regulations and failing to immediately identify the presence of lead in Flint’s drinking water. He also said that he was told the lead problem was limited to one household, and that worries about lead were raised as long ago as last February. He pointedly thanked the whistle-blowers who detected the lead levels in the water and in children’s blood, prompting a flurry of action in recent weeks.
He promised to seek $28 million in state funds for Flint residents to provide more bottled water, health care for children in the city, and improvements to the city’s troubled infrastructure.
“To the families in Flint, it is my responsibility, my commitment to deliver,” Mr. Snyder said. “I give you my commitment that Michigan will not let you down.”
Graphic | The Reach of Lead in Flint’s Water Supply After Flint, Mich. switched its water from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River in April 2014, high levels of lead were found in children in Flint. The city is now in a state of emergency; National Guard troops arrived this week.
Hours before Mr. Snyder spoke, the Environmental Protection Agency said the state had not responded quickly enough to the water emergency. “What happened in Flint should not have happened,” the agency said in a statement.
President Obama, who last weekend signed an emergency declaration that made $5 million in federal assistance available, met with the mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, in Washington.
“The president heard firsthand how the residents of Flint are dealing with the ongoing public health crisis and the challenges that still exist for the city, its residents and the business community,” according to a statement describing the meeting.
Much of the criticism has been aimed at Mr. Snyder. A former accountant who had not sought public office until he was elected in 2010, he had cultivated a reputation as an able administrator who would bring a businessman’s eye to state and local government.
But two forays into local government blew up in recent weeks as serious questions were raised about decisions made by emergency managers appointed by him in Flint and in Detroit, where the public schools are deteriorating physically and are close to insolvency. Mr. Snyder addressed both in his speech, as well as concerns about the state’s aging infrastructure. In both cases, his administration’s competence and compassion were questioned, and critics noted that both cities were predominately black.
The Detroit Free Press demanded full accountability, starting with the governor’s emails, which under state law were protected from public scrutiny. On Monday, protesters marched outside Mr. Snyder’s apartment building in Ann Arbor, demanding his arrest. As he prepared to deliver his address, demonstrators waited outside the Capitol, waving signs calling for justice.
“What took the governor so long to do something about this?” asked Dan Reyes, 46, an autoworker and Flint resident who brought bottles full of the city’s tap water to offer to legislators. “The message is clear to us: Flint is a predominantly minority, poor community. In Flint, you don’t matter to Snyder’s brand of politician.”
Over and over on Tuesday, Mr. Snyder expressed contrition, referring to the matter as a “crisis” and “catastrophe,” saying “mistakes” had been made and promising to pray for the people of Flint.
But he also left residents of the city, whose population has dwindled with the departure of the auto industry to fewer than 100,000, with unanswered questions. Why did state officials switch the source of its water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, known to locals as a dumping ground for trash and pollutants? Why did it take months before complaints about the water’s odor and rusty color were taken seriously? Who knew about the lead problem, and when? Would it have happened at all in a city populated by affluent white people?
In Michigan, whose state Legislature is controlled by Republicans, members of Mr. Snyder’s party have sprung to his defense. Ronna Romney McDaniel, the chairwoman of Michigan’s Republican Party, said she was confident in Mr. Snyder’s ability to help fix Flint’s water problems.
“He’s turned our state around,” Ms. McDaniel said. “I think he is the perfect governor to help lead us through this crisis. I know he will be solution-oriented and action-oriented.”
But Democrats, furious over the slow response to complaints over Flint water, said the blame fell directly on the governor.
““From the very beginning,” Brandon Dillon, the chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said before Mr. Snyder’s address, “his style of governance has been to put the bottom line over what’s in the best interest of health and safety.”
After the speech, Representative Dan Kildee, a Democrat whose district includes Flint, rejected the idea that $28 million was enough to fix the Flint water crisis. Exposure to even small amounts of lead is linked to long-term developmental issues and other problems in children.
“That is a fraction of the money city residents have paid for poisoned water that they cannot drink,” he said in a statement. “Flint deserves an immediate response equal to the gravity of this ongoing public health emergency. A state-appointed emergency financial manager created this problem, and the state must step up and do more to help Flint families and children right now.”
Mr. Snyder has tried to stay above the political fray. Running under the slogan “One Tough Nerd,” he was elected in the Republican wave that swept Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Gov. Paul LePage of Maine into office. He has spent his brief political career promoting “relentless positive action,” in his oft-deployed and characteristically cheerful phrase, over partisan politics.
In 2013, he angered many Republicans in Michigan by allowing a Medicaid expansion in his state as part of the Affordable Care Act. Yet he also dismayed Democrats when he signed a bill in 2012 making Michigan a “right to work” state, a measure that diminishes the power of organized labor.
Michigan’s governors are subject to term limits, so Mr. Snyder will not be running for re-election in 2018.
Arthur Woodson, a Flint resident who has helped organize and lead protests drawing attention to the city’s water situation for more than a year, said he had not voted for Mr. Snyder but had initially been somewhat optimistic about his leadership.
“I thought he was going to get in and be more moderate and work with the people,” said Mr. Woodson, who was helping protesters board buses traveling to Lansing on Tuesday. “But it hasn’t been that way.”
Correction: January 19, 2016
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article characterized incorrectly the comments from the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency said state officials failed to respond quickly enough to the water crisis, not that the agency failed to do so.
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.
Powered by WPeMatico