President Obama declared the ongoing water-supply crisis in Flint, Michigan, a federal emergency on Saturday, opening up FEMA support and federal funding to help tackle the city’s lack of access to clean and safe drinking water, according to the Detroit Free Press. The move follows more than a year of controversy after the city, under the direction of a state-appointed manager intent on saving money, temporarily switched its water supply to the Flint River. That water was then found to contain harmful chemicals, bacteria, and, most dangerously, lead. The lead contamination was a result of the water not being treated well enough to prevent the corrosion of lead pipes and fixtures, which in turn led to the toxic element leaching into the water supply. Children are most at risk from the health issues resulting from lead consumption, and more than 8,600 under the age of 6 live in Flint, according to census data.
The risk to residents had persisted despite repeated assurances from government officials that the water was safe to use and consume. Earlier this month, Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who is now deeply embroiled in the scandal, declared a state of emergency in the city, and federal officials started to get involved as well. Since then, Snyder has begun using the National Guard, in combination with NGO relief efforts, to distribute bottled water, filters, and tests to Flint residents.
In addition, a Virginia Tech investigation into the man-made disaster found that state officials had not only rejected or ignored valid complaints, but lied and concealed evidence regarding water test results. The New York Times also reports that Michigan’s attorney general opened an investigation into the lead contamination on Friday to see if any laws were broken amidst the crisis. The EPA and Department of Justice are now investigating as well.
Obama’s move was actually less than what Snyder wanted, as he had asked for federal disaster area declaration and $55 million in federal assistance, and indicated the full cost could end up being closer to $100 million. So far, the White House has approved up to $5 million in assistance, and more can be provided if Congress is involved. In addition, the political ramifications have arrived on the national political stage, as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called for Governor Synder to resign over his handling of the crisis.
“The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint’s water. He did nothing,” the candidate said in a statement on Saturday. “As a result, hundreds of children were poisoned. Thousands may have been exposed potential brain damage from lead.” Meanwhile, filmmaker and Flint native-son Michael Moore is trying to organize a campaign to have Synder arrested, and as Politico points out, Hillary Clinton also criticized Snyder this past week over the crisis. In response, Snyder’s spokesperson says that the governor only learned of the lead issue in October, and insisted he has been doing everything in his power to address the issue since.