Gov. Rick Snyder launched his second term touting Detroit’s recent emergence from bankruptcy and a new way of structuring state government so Michigan’s downtrodden residents could join a “river of opportunity.”
A year later, a real river — the Flint River — and the fallout from a water crisis in another impoverished city have marred the Republican’s image as a practical problem-solver.
Snyder is preparing to deliver his sixth State of the State address Tuesday, where he will be met by a large protest that is likely to echo the withering criticism over Flint’s water disaster coming from inside and outside of Michigan.
No stranger to controversy after enacting right-to-work laws in organized labor’s backyard and blessing Detroit’s bankruptcy that resulted in cuts to retiree pensions and health care benefits, Snyder’s legacy surely will include the regulatory failures that led to an underwhelming response to Flint’s lead-tainted drinking water.
He has intensified efforts in recent weeks — declaring an emergency, pledging another round of state funding, activating the National Guard to help hand out lead tests, filters and bottled water and seeking and receiving federal assistance — but to many, it took way too long.
Snyder is despised in Flint and characterized as uncaring — a stunning reversal for a governor who has paid plenty of attention to urban renewal, such as Detroit’s increasing recovery and the expansion of Medicaid to 600,000 low-income adults, and has been focused on making government be more “people-centric.”
Outside water quality and medical experts had uncovered evidence that the decision to switch Flint from Detroit’s water system to the more corrosive river in April 2014 — a money-saving move while under state financial management — leached lead from services lines and pipes. Exposure to lead can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in children and kidney ailments in adults.
The Detroit system, which taps Lake Huron, adds a corrosion-control agent to prevent lead in pipes from getting into the water. Flint had not been doing that, which meant the river water was 25 times more corrosive, according Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards.
But people in Snyder’s administration dismissed experts’ and residents’ concerns, and it was not until late September that Snyder promised to take action.
He seemingly had things under control in October. He committed $10.6 million to reconnect Flint to Detroit’s water supply, buy filters, test water samples, inspect homes and schools and coordinate care for children with elevated blood-lead levels. He also created an independent task force to investigate the situation.
But three events — all in December — hastened what has become a near-daily barrage of negative news.
The task force sounded alarms in a Dec. 7 letter about poor coordination in the response effort and suggested the need for the state to set goals and timelines and communicate better with the community. Critics complained about a lack of urgency from Snyder and no trained emergency response manager on the ground.
New Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared an emergency Dec. 14 in a bid to ultimately secure federal aid. Fifteen days later, Snyder accepted the resignation of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant after the task force put the lion’s share of the blame for the lead crisis on his agency and criticized its attempts to discredit residents’ concerns.
Snyder has apologized and was in Flint last week to ramp up relief efforts.
But he also held an impromptu news conference on Wednesday to say the county where Flint is located has seen an increase in Legionnaires’ diseases cases, including 10 deaths. State health officials say they cannot conclude the spike was related to Flint’s water.
The fallout could linger for months, potentially years, to come.
The U.S. Justice Department is helping the Environmental Protection Agency investigate, and state Attorney General Bill Schuette on Friday opened his own probe, which could focus on whether environmental laws were broken or if there was official misconduct.
Some activists have called for Snyder’s resignation or arrest.
“I’ve apologized for what’s gone on with the state,” Snyder said last week in Flint. “I am responsible for state government, so I have a degree of responsibility. That’s why we’ve tried to be prudent about taking actions to address where those problems were, what those issues were … Again, I wish they never would have happened.” (AP)