'I would be beside myself,' Obama says of Flint water crisis as governor asks for more help

The Flint River © Rebecca Cook
Addressing Flint’s contaminated water crisis, President Barack Obama said the government can’t “shortchange basic services ... we provide to our people,” as Michigan’s governor wrote to ask Obama to reconsider his denial of a federal disaster declaration.

President Obama visited Detroit on Wednesday for the North American International Auto Show to highlight a resurgence in the auto industry, which was bailed out by American taxpayers during the financial crisis of 2008.

Speaking at a joint General Motors-United Auto Workers facility, Obama opened his speech criticizing the water contamination in Flint, which has spurred accusations of government negligence and cover-ups.

"If I was a parent in Flint, I'd be beside myself over my kids' health," Obama told a crowd of auto workers and their families, according to CNN. He added that the government can't "shortchange basic services that we provide to our people.”

Obama didn't visit Flint on Wednesday, but the White House did dispatch an administration official to the city to coordinate federal efforts there.

Meanwhile, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder wrote to Obama on Wednesday, asking him to reconsider his denial of a federal disaster declaration over the Flint water crisis.

“This unique disaster poses imminent and long-term threat to the citizens of Flint,” wrote Snyder. “Its severity warrants special consideration for all categories of the individual and public assistance programs, as well as the Hazard Mitigation program in order to facilitate recovery.”

Elevated lead levels were found in the water supply in Flint after the city disconnected from Detroit's water line to save money and began drawing water from the Flint River in April 2014. The move was intended to be a stop-gap measure until a pipeline to Lake Huron was completed for Flint's municipal water. Untreated water from the Flint River allowed lead to leach from the pipes, officials said.

Obama already declared an emergency for Flint on January 16, which qualifies the city for $5 million, but said it didn’t qualify for disaster relief under the Stafford Act, which was intended for natural events such as fires, floods or explosions. Snyder argued to the contrary.

“I submit that this disaster is analogous to the flood category, given that qualities within the water, over a long term, flooded and damaged the city’s infrastructure in ways that were not immediately or easily detectable,” wrote Snyder. “This disaster is a natural catastrophe in the sense that lead contamination into water is a natural process.”

Disaster relief would free up additional funding. Snyder had estimated a need for up to $95 million over a year, according to AP. He acknowledged that Flint had aging infrastructure and had been devastated by job losses and associated economic decline, but argued it would take federal assistance “for permanent solutions for the public water system damages."

He said the ability of the community to recover “with such a large percentage of its citizens living in poverty requires the ability of those citizens to acquire proper health care, case management, legal services, and assistance in repairing the plumbing infrastructure in their homes that may have been damaged.”

Snyder said the state had already made “an emergency appropriation to return Flint to Detroit water,” which along with testing and short and long term health strategies cost $9.35 million. The City of Flint committed $2 million, and the Charles Mott Foundation committed $4 million. He said the needs of Flint “greatly exceeded the collective funding resources of local and state government.”

$28 million emergency appropriations

During Snyder’s State of the State address on Monday, to which he devoted half the time to addressing the contaminated water crisis, Snyder said he would “fix” Flint’s problem. He announced state budget officials had sought an additional $28.5 million in emergency appropriations which was approved by House committee on Wednesday. The Senate has yet to vote on the bill, but it could reach the governor’s desk by next week.

The money would pay for more filters, bottled water, school nurses, intervention specialists, testing and monitoring. It would also be used to replace plumbing fixtures in schools with lead problems and could help Flint residents with unpaid water bills.

“This is awful in terms of the situation in Flint. People’s lives were damaged and that’s not right,” he told WDET-FM. “I had people working for me who contributed to that problem. I’m responsible because they work for me.”

Flint Mayor wants more support from state, feds

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver was in Washington, DC meeting with White House officials, congressional representatives and others to drum up support for her city. She had also met with President Obama on Tuesday.

“Our resources are being sent to Flint as we speak…but it’s not enough. We have to hold the state accountable,” said Weaver on Wednesday at the US Conference of Mayors event in DC, according to ABC News. “We’ve been crying about this for almost, it’ll be two years in April.”

Weaver and other officials have suggested “tapping into the state’s emergency Budget Stabilization Fund, which has a balance of $498 million at present, or the state’s budget surplus, estimated to be next fiscal year $575 million,” according to the Detroit Free Press.

“I would like some more (from the federal government), but the state needs to do their part first,” Weaver said. Weaver argued that such an emergency would not have gone unaddressed if Flint had been a rich suburb instead of one of the most impoverished cities in the nation and under control of an emergency manager appointed by the state.

She said residents still don’t know at what point they’ll be able to drink the water.

“It’s ironic when you live in the Great Lakes state and you don’t have access to clean water,” she added. “I hope other cities from around the country take note about what has happened in Flint. Start monitoring what is going on with your water…don’t let this happen where you live.”

Snyder releases trove of Flint emails

As promised, Governor Snyder released emails he sent and received on Flint. However, this data dump did not include all emails sent and received by his staff or agency management involved in the water scandal.

“The most relevant piece is for me to step up and say here are my personal e-mails, not only the ones I sent, but the ones I received. I made a personal decision to release my personal e-mails,” Snyder told WDET-FM, according to the Detroit Free Press.

During his state of the state address, democratic lawmakers wore buttons that read, “What did you know. When did you know it. #flintwatercrisis.” Snyder said people will get answers from his emails dated from 2014-2015.