Governor Rick Snyder late Tuesday activated the Michigan National Guard to help distribute bottled water and filters in Flint and asked the federal government for help dealing with a drinking water crisis that began months ago.
Snyder’s executive order triggering the Guard’s deployment is intended to bolster outreach to residents, whose tap water became contaminated with too much lead after the city switched its water supply in 2014 to save money while under state financial management.
The Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) alleges that officials there knew about the risks of shifting the city’s water supply from Detroit’s Lake Huron to the Flint River, but did so anyway — ostensibly to cut costs.
Local officials first declared a public health emergency in Flint in October in response to tests that showed children with elevated levels of lead.
Since then, authorities have struggled to ensure residents have safe drinking water. People in Flint have been told not to drink the water until it is determined to be safe, and volunteers and police in recent days have been going door to door with bottled water, filters and lead test kits.
Snyder on Tuesday also requested and was granted support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate a recovery plan with other federal agencies that have the programs, authorities or technical expertise to help. FEMA appointed a disaster recovery coordinator to help the state, spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said.
“As we work to ensure that all Flint residents have access to clean and safe drinking water, we are providing them with the direct assistance they need,” the Republican governor said in a written statement.
Guard members are expected to begin arriving as early as Wednesday. More than 30 members will be in place by Friday, enabling American Red Cross volunteers to join door-to-door efforts instead of staffing sites where residents can pick up free bottled water, filters, replacement cartridges and home water testing kits.
Earlier Tuesday, Genesee County sheriff’s Capt. Casey Tafoya said volunteers and police hoped to get to 500 to 600 houses a day in a city of about 99,000 residents with an estimated 30,000 households.
State troopers and sheriff’s deputies escorted eight teams as they trudged through cold temperatures and 3 inches of snow, with more falling. Flyers were left at homes where no one answered, giving the location of where to pick up the items later.
“We plan to go every day this week, and we’ll continue until everyone has safe drinking water,” state police Lt. Dave Kaiser said.
For more than a year, water drawn from the Flint River leached lead from old lines into homes after the city switched its drinking water. Exposure to lead can cause behaviour problems and learning disabilities in children.
Flint has since returned to Detroit’s system for its water, but officials remain concerned that damage to the pipes caused by the Flint River could allow them to continue leaching lead. They also want to ensure monitoring protocols are followed properly this time.
The state auditor general and a task force created by Snyder have faulted the Department of Environmental Quality for not requiring Flint to treat the river water for corrosion and belittling the public’s fears. The agency’s director — Dan Wyant — stepped down last month.
Nearly a month ago, the task force also raised concerns about a lack of organisation in responding to the disaster.
Snyder, who has also faced criticism, said Monday that the water situation is a “crisis” and last week declared an emergency.
He said that since October, more than 12,000 filters have been distributed, more than 2,000 blood tests have been done — uncovering 43 cases of elevated lead levels — and more than 700 water tests have been conducted.
“I trust the good men and women of the National Guard will jumpstart the Snyder administration’s lacklustre response to this public health crisis,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said in a statement. “Sadly, myself and many leaders of my community have advocated for this type of response for months.”
The Detroit Free Press, who endorsed Snyder for Governor twice, posed a direct challenge to his administration’s lacklustre response in an editorial on Sunday: “When are you going to turn your relentless, positive action toward assuaging the misery your administration has heaped upon the people of Flint?”
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