DETROIT — If Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder thought he’d calm fears and win over residents when he addressed the current water crisis in Flint, he was mistaken.
“I want Governor Snyder to solve the problem and basically get up out of office,” long-time Flint resident Tomeko Hornaday told CNN, echoing the sentiments of many.
“We shouldn’t have to be going through this, we shouldn’t have to do this. This is an embarrassment to the city of Flint, first of all, and an embarrassment to our government and to our residents,” Hornaday said Tuesday night after Snyder’s State of the State speech.
Outside where the governor spoke in Lansing, protesters gathered and demanded their governor step down. “Snyder must go,” a group chanted from the steps of the state capitol.
In his annual State of the State address, Snyder vowed to do everything in his power to solve the crisis, asking legislators for $28 million to fund a series of immediate actions.
He also issued a heartfelt apology: “You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth.”
“No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe. Government failed you — federal, state and local leaders — by breaking the trust you placed in us,” Snyder said.
A costly situation …
His words did little to quiet his critics.
“For those who think $28 million will begin to remedy the Flint water crisis, that is a fraction of the money city residents have paid for poisoned water that they cannot drink,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has previously said the costs to undo the damage, both to infrastructure and residents’ health, could be between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.
To add to Snyder’s woes, the Environmental Protection Agency squarely pointed the finger at state and local authorities: “What happened in Flint should not have happened,” the agency said in a statement.
The EPA is conducting a comprehensive audit of the state’s drinking water program, as well as a detailed review of how the Safe Drinking Water Act was implemented there.
… made worse
And then there are the lawsuits – at least three. They seek individual damages for Flint residents — an estimated 500 and counting — who have complained of health issues and worry about future ailments.
An attorney in one of the suits had a message for state officials: “Don’t fight it.”
The state is responsible for the water woes Flint residents have suffered and continue to suffer as a result, and the only responsible thing the state can do is own up to it, said Michael Pitt, one of the attorneys who filed a suit.
“If you make the mess, you clean it up,” he said. “I’m reminding our elected officials of what my kindergarten teacher told me.”
Plaintiff Rhonda Kelso described the situation as “unconscionable.”
“You really don’t want to think about it, you want to block it out of your mind,” she told CNN.
Following the paper trail
During the discovery process, lawyers said, attorneys and their clients should receive emails and other documents from various government officials, including Snyder, that could shed light on a critical yet heretofore unanswered question: How the heck did this occur?
Lawyers lambasted state officials who, they allege, learned of elevated lead levels in children’s blood in 2014 and did nothing.
“They were staring at a public health emergency, and they sat on it for over 10 months,” Pitt said, further criticizing leaders who assured residents the water was safe when they knew it wasn’t true.
“I don’t know how many kids were poisoned because of these false assurances, but we’re going to find out.”
In April 2014, the state, which had appointed an emergency manager to Flint amid a financial crisis, decided to temporarily switch Flint’s water source to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready.
The Flint River had long had a reputation for nastiness when the state made the switch, and a 2011 study had found that before water from the Flint River could be considered potable, it would need to be treated with an anti-corrosion agent, a measure that would have cost the state about $100 a day.
After the switch, residents complained their water looked, smelled and tasted funny.
Virginia Tech researchers found the water was highly corrosive. A class-action lawsuit filed last year alleges the state Department of Environmental Quality didn’t treat the water for corrosion, in accordance with federal law, and because so many service lines in Flint are made of lead, the noxious element leached into the water of the city’s homes.
The city swapped back to the Lake Huron water supply in October.
But the damage was already done.