LANSING President Barack Obama on Saturday declared a federal emergency in Flint, freeing up to $5 million in federal aid to immediately assist with the public health crisis, but he denied Gov. Rick Snyder’s request for a disaster declaration.
A disaster declaration would have made larger amounts of federal funding available more quickly to help Flint residents whose drinking water is contaminated with lead. But under federal law, only natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods are eligible for disaster declarations, federal and state officials said. The lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water is a manmade catastrophe.
The president’s actions authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate responses and cover 75% of the costs for much-needed water, filters, filter cartridges and other items for residents, capped initially at $5 million. The president also offered assistance in finding other available federal assistance, a news release Saturday from the White House said.
Snyder, who on Thursday night asked Obama for federal financial aid in the crisis through declarations of both a federal emergency and a federal disaster, said in a news release Saturday he appreciates Obama granting the emergency request “and supporting Flint during this critical situation.”
“I have pledged to use all state resources possible to help heal Flint, and these additional resources will greatly assist in efforts under way to ensure every resident has access to clean water resources,” he said.
“I welcome the president’s quick action in support of the people of Flint after months of inaction by the governor,” Kildee said. “The residents and children of Flint deserve every resource available to make sure that they have safe water and are able to recover from this terrible manmade disaster created by the state.”
On Friday, Kildee led a bipartisan effort in support of the request for federal assistance. Kildee had long called for Snyder to request federal aid.
Typically, federal aid for an emergency is capped at $5 million, though the president can commit more if he goes through Congress.
Snyder’s application said as much as $55 million is needed in the near term to repair damaged lead service lines and as much as $41 million to pay for several months of water distribution and providing residents with testing, water filters and cartridges.
In what’s become a huge government scandal, garnering headlines across the country and around the world, Flint’s drinking water became contaminated with lead after the city temporarily switched its supply source in 2014 from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to more corrosive and polluted Flint River water, treated at the Flint water treatment plant.
The switch was made as a cost-cutting move while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. The state Department of Environmental Quality has acknowledged a mistake in failing to require the addition of needed corrosion-control chemicals to the water. That caused lead, which causes brain damage and other health problems in children, to leach into the water from pipes and fixtures.
Resident complaints about the taste, odor and appearance of the water, which began immediately after the switch, were largely ignored by state officials. The state also dismissed reports of elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint children from pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha before for the first time publicly acknowledging a problem in October 2015.
Snyder declared a state of emergency Jan. 5 and mobilized the National Guard Jan. 12 but has been widely and strongly criticized for not moving more quickly.
State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said federal assistance makes him “more confident … Flint families will begin receiving the help they deserve.”
“We need to remain committed and ensure the state fully accepts responsibility in this crisis and does everything they can to correct the long-term impact on our community,” Ananich said in a news release Saturday.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said in a news release Saturday she appreciates “the president’s quick action in responding to the urgent needs of families in Flint.”
“I will continue to push for federal resources to address this crisis, and for a commitment of resources from the state to meet the immediate needs of the community and to set aside a future fund to address the long-term needs of children and families,” Stabenow said.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, also welcomed the announcement and said he will work to support further federal support for Flint residents. However, “the State of Michigan and Gov. Snyder must step up and provide the necessary resources to deal with the long-term effect of water contamination,” Peters said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, praised Obama for moving “with unprecedented speed to respond, within 36 hours of receiving the request.”
Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.
All Flint’s children must be treated as exposed to lead
In order to address the public health crisis in Flint, every Flint child under 6 years of age — 8,657 children, based on an analysis of Census data — should be considered exposed to lead.
The direction came earlier this week from the doctor who forced the state to acknowledge Flint’s lead problem and the state itself.
The exposure began in April 2014 after the city switched from using Detroit’s water system, which pumps water out of Lake Huron, to its own treatment plant, which drew water from the Flint River.
In recommendations to the state on Monday, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha said all kids under the age of 6 should be treated with some kind of prevention actions.
Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive, said Monday that all children who drank the city’s water since April 2014 have been exposed to lead. “It is important when we think about a public health perspective that we consider the whole cohort … exposed to the drinking water, especially 6 years and under since April 2014, as exposed, regardless of what their blood level is on Jan. 11.”
The state’s most recent report, based on tests conducted between October and December 2015, shows that 43 people — only a small portion of the number exposed — had elevated blood lead levels. That’s because these tests measure only the amount of lead in a person’s blood, which decreases after about 30 days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That means testing done today does not represent past exposure. Once lead is present in the bloodstream, it is distributed throughout the body, primarily to bones, teeth and soft tissue. Lead accumulates in the body over time. Blood-lead tests used to identify recent or ongoing exposure to lead, do not measure the overall lead burden in the body.
There is no safe level of lead in the body, but the impacts of lead are considered most severe on the developing brains and nervous systems of children and fetuses. And even the 8,657 Flint children younger than 6 exposed to lead may be a low estimate; It doesn’t include unborn children whose mothers drank tainted water during their pregnancies, or children and pregnant women who reside outside Flint but were exposed while visiting relatives, childcare centers or hospitals inside city limits.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the health experts recommend that all of Flint’s children be treated as though they have been exposed to lead.
Source: Environmental Systems Research Institute, 2015 population estimates.