Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder said on Friday that race was not a factor in the state’s response to lead contamination in the drinking water in Flint. Flint is a poor, majority-black city where the supply has been tainted for more than a year, but for much of that time, state officials reported that it was safe to drink.
An interviewer, Mika Brzezinski, cited a New York Times article that asked, “If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?” Many Flint residents, and Democratic politicians including Hillary Clinton and Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, have said the answer is yes.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has come under fire for handling the drinking water situation in Flint so badly that some critics refer to it as “Katrina II”.
Mr. Snyder was asked Friday morning on MSNBC whether Flint residents were victims of “environmental racism,” and his reply was, “Absolutely not.”
“Flint is a place I’ve been devoted to helping,” said Mr. Snyder, a Republican. “Look at all the work we’ve done in Detroit. Several cities — Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, Saginaw — I’ve made a focused effort since before I started in office to say, ‘We need to work hard to help people that have the greatest need.’ ”
Gov. Snyder admitted to failures on the state’s part. “If you look at it, it was people being much too technical, not having the culture of asking the common-sense questions, and then the tone of how things were done,” he said.
He also deflected blame from his high-level appointees, questioning the competence of state workers who analyzed the quality of the water and the threat it posed to Flint residents.
“The heads were not being given the right information by the quote-unquote experts,” Mr. Snyder said. “And I use that word with great trial and tribulation because they were considered experts in terms of their background. These are career civil servants. They had strong science, medical backgrounds in terms of their research. But as a practical matter, when you look at it today and you look at their conclusions, I wouldn’t call them experts anymore.”
Later in the day, Governor Snyder suspended two environmental regulators over their roles in the crisis.
The two state employees he suspended work for the Department of Environmental Quality, but his office has not identified them by name or position. After an investigation, they may face further discipline. The suspensions were the first stemming from the Flint emergency, but not the first staff changes.
The director and chief spokesman for the DEQ resigned last month, and two administrators overseeing water quality enforcement were reassigned to other duties within the department.
On Thursday, the regional administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Susan Hedman, announced her resignation, due to criticism that she took no action for months after learning of Flint’s water issues on last year.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Keith Creagh wrote Friday in a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that the state “is committed to working” with her department and Flint to deal with the city’s lead contamination problem. But he said the state has “legal and factual concerns” with an EPA order a day earlier taking state and city officials to task for their efforts so far and requiring them to take specific actions.
Creagh stated that Michigan “has complied with every recent demand” of the EPA and that Thursday’s federal order “does not reference the tens of millions of dollars expended by … the state for water filters, drinking water, testing and medical services.”
“The order demands that the state take certain actions, but fails to note that many of those actions … have already been taken,” Creagh, who recently replaced an official who resigned over the water crisis, wrote in his required response to the EPA’s order.
Earlier Friday, The Flint Water Advisory Task Force issued recommendations to Snyder for restoring reliable drinking water in Flint. The advisory group said its recommendations are more detailed and comprehensive than what the EPA ordered, and Snyder said officials would “move as quickly as possible to determine the best way to achieve the results.”
Flint’s public health emergency led to local, state and federal emergency declarations, the last of which could bring up to $5 million in direct funding to the city. The federal government denied a request for more aid through a disaster declaration, saying the program is designed for natural disasters and not appropriate for the city’s drinking water crisis. The government announced Friday that it had denied an appeal of that decision by Snyder.
Some have faulted the EPA’s Region 5 office for not acting more forcefully even though much of the blame over the crisis has been directed at Snyder and state officials, particularly the Department of Environmental Quality.
The EPA’s order to state and city officials came the same day that the agency announced that Susan Hedman, head of the agency’s regional office in Chicago whose jurisdiction includes Michigan, was stepping down Feb. 1.