Partisanship is the order of the day in Michigan, where state and federal authorities are trying to sort out what has become known as the ‘Flint water crisis.’ Flint is a city of approximately 100,000 that is marked by vanished industry, abandoned homes and businesses, demographic collapse and the resulting drop in government revenues, as well as an aging infrastructure. Last week, under growing pressure from advocacy groups, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) declared a state emergency in the city that has seen lead levels spike in the delivery of water to its residents over nearly two years. Snyder made a request to the White House for a disaster designation for the stricken city, and requested some $95 million in federal aid. The request was denied by the Obama administration.
In 2014, the city of Flint decided to cut itself off from water supplied by Detroit, which is sourced in Lake Huron, in an effort to save money. Detroit had long been the supplier and charged rates that Flint officials found unacceptable. After considerable updates to its treatment plant, Flint began sourcing its water from the Flint River that passes through the city while it continued the construction of a pipeline connecting it directly to Lake Huron. It soon afterwards that residents complained of discoloration and foul odors in their water. City and state officials scrambled to fix the problem, which at first was identified as an excess of a chemical residue that is left behind by disinfectants. By mid-2015 the federal Environmental Protection Agency certified that the water was safe to drink. Flint, which had long received water from Lake Huron provided by Detroit’s water utility, began drawing its water from the Flint River in 2014 in an effort to save money while a new pipeline was built.
However, in the fall of 2015 a local physician at a public hospital released results of a study showing elevated levels of lead found in blood samples taken from children. Officials are concerned that damaged water lines may continue to leach lead from the system, which has pipes dating to more than a century ago. Lead is known to cause cognitive damage in children and kidney issues in adults. Officials are also looking into reports that the contaminated water was connected to an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease that has killed 10 people. Governor Snyder said that his administration sprang into action once it was alerted to the problem as controversy raged over identifying the parties responsible. Before the end of the year, the head of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality resigned.
As the presidential election campaign season was warming up, so did the rhetoric from progressives and Democrats both inside and outside of Michigan. On the January 15-16 weekend, famed activist Jesse Jackson showed up and demanded action. “We should have ... tape around the city because Flint is a crime scene,” Jackson said at Heavenly Host Baptist Church in Flint. “The people of Flint have been betrayed.” Also speaking at the church on January 17 was state Rep. Woodrow Stanley of Flint, who drew applause when he told the black church, “Somebody needs to go to jail.”
Stanley served as Flint’s mayor for three terms, but was recalled after allegedly failing to address the city’s $30 million+ deficit. When he was ousted, Stanley accused opponents of racist motivations. He is a visible supporter of newly elected Mayor Karen Weaver – the first black female in the job. Stanley has been a fixture in local and state politics, having served variously as mayor, state representative, and county commissioner.
Ignoring the millions the city has received for decades in federal aid for low-income housing, police protections, and other programs, Stanley did acknowledge the Flint’s problems go deep. “Right now, the water issue is the cause célèbre,” he said. “Everyone wants to come to Flint because it’s on the front page. But it’s not always going to be on the front page. Flint is a city without a safety net. We had failing schools before we had a water crisis. We had high unemployment.”
During the January 16 debate between the three Democratic party presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton said in her closing remarks that Snyder should have acted sooner, while Sen. Bernie Sanders demanded the governor’s resignation.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), whose district encompasses Flint and the also decaying rustbelt cities of Saginaw and Bay City, backed Snyder by sending a letter appealing to President Barack Obama to designate Flint a disaster area. The letter was signed by all the members of Michigan’s congressional delegation in Washington. Kildee, the scion of a Democratic family, wrote "Lead exposure can have lifelong impacts on neurological and behavioral development. To combat this exposure, the state's request includes federal funding for water infrastructure improvements, support for health care and nutritional assistance," Kildee wrote. "It is important that the requested assistance be dispatched immediately to Flint in order to respond to this crisis by providing safe drinking water and protecting the health of city residents.”
The signatories told Obama, "Your swift response is critical to address this ongoing public emergency and its long-term impacts on the people of Flint, especially its children." U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI) supported the appeal. "I am glad to see President Obama respond so quickly to Governor Snyder's request for assistance,” said Huizenga, who represents a conservative area of the state. ”Our first priority must be the health and safety of the people of Flint."
However, the White House refused the disaster designation requested by Snyder and the congressional delegation because the water crisis is manmade, not natural. Snyder is appealing the decision. A federal disaster designation could release some $96 million in federal funds requested by Snyder for water filters and bottled water. Currently, volunteers and charities are distributing water and filters to Flint residents, adding to efforts being made by police and the National Guard.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate wrote to Snyder explaining that the denial of Michigan’s request was denied because the water contamination “does not meet the legal definition of a ‘major disaster’” under federal law. Fugate wrote, “The incident was not the result of a natural catastrophe, nor was it created by a fire, flood or explosion.” The White House agreed to calling the lead crisis in Flint an “emergency,” which will mean sending $5 million in federal funds to Michigan. However, no cap on federal assistance has been declared.
Snyder has pledge state resources to resolve the problem, while he plans to ask the state legislature for additional funding to pay for the skyrocketing costs of cleaning up lead contamination in Flint.
The lone hold-out among Michigan’s congressman in demanding federal relief is U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R) – a Tea Party favorite. Amash’s district is in conservative western Michigan and encompasses the eastern suburbs of Grand Rapids and south to Battle Creek. He argues that "While the U.S. Constitution does not authorize the federal government to intervene in an intrastate matter like this one, the State of Michigan should provide comprehensive assistance to the people of Flint." Amash added, "The residents who were harmed deserve an independent, nonpartisan investigation, and the persons responsible for this crisis must be held accountable."
State tests first showed elevated lead levels in 2014 and health officials are checking into a possible relationship to 87 cases of Legionnaire's disease, 10 of which were fatal.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate, in a letter to Snyder, said his request for a major disaster declaration was denied because the water contamination “does not meet the legal definition of a ‘major disaster’” under federal law.
In Snyder’s request for disaster assistance, he asked for as much as $96 million for water, supplies and to help residents replace lead pipes on private property.
The original request included:
■ $54.6 million for the repair of damaged lead service lines on private property.
■ $10.3 million for 90 days of water.
■ $31 million for a year’s worth of filters and other water supplies for all Flint residents.
Snyder has 30 days to appeal FEMA’s denial of a major disaster denial to Obama.
Mayor Karen Weaver, after meeting with Gov. Snyder on January 5, said that replacing the 500 miles of pipes in water system in the decaying city could cost as much as $1.5 billion.
Michigan’s Attorney General Bill Schuette is investigating Flint’s crisis to determine if any of Michigan’s laws were violated. Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon was unimpressed, saying that Schuette “has disqualified himself from conducting a fair and honest investigation of the Snyder administration’s role in the Flint water crisis, plain and simple.”
Flint has had a series of city managers, who were sent by Gov. Snyder to straighten out the city’s finances and cut costs. The city has been marked by political deadlock for decades, even though it has had Democratic congressional representation in the area since 1976, as well as a succession of Democrats in the mayor’s office.
Unaddressed overspending, pensions, and bond debt have complicated the flight of the automobile industry and former residents from the city where both General Motors and the United Auto Workers tangled in the 1920s but produced an enviable lifestyle for decades. Republicans have not held a seat in Congress nor the mayor's office in most people's memory, while the GOP is largely ineffective. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee - the nephew of retired U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee - who had served in the seat since 1976 - won election handily, relying largely on the loyalty of UAW retirees and workers, as well as local black politicians.
Once considered one of the most segregated (albeit not legally enforced) cities in the country, the city is now has a black majority and an active black political class that has been reliably part of the Democratic Party for decades.