On Saturday, President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration for Michigan, spurred by the lead-tainted water supply in the city of Flint. Local and state leaders are coming under fire for failing to respond to the problem when it first arose nearly two years ago. The contaminated water has exposed thousands of residents to unhealthy amounts of lead, and blood tests show the city’s children have above-average levels of the element. Governor Rick Snyder and other state and local officials are now clamoring to respond to an emergency that many believe could have been prevented.
The White House declaration comes two days after the state’s governor requested federal assistance, and more than a week after Snyder announced a statewide emergency over Flint’s tainted water supply. The city’s mayor Karen Weaver had previously declared an emergency in mid-December, citing a report about the high levels of lead showing up in local children’s blood. Lead poisoning—the result of slowly accumulating lead in the body over the course of weeks or months—can lead to a host of health conditions because it interferes with body processes and organ functions in almost every system of the body. Excess levels of lead may even be linked to criminal behavior.
Many criticize that the government did not take action to resolve the water problems when it was early enough to avoid such widespread exposure. Problems with contaminated water were reported soon after the city switched to water from the Flint River in 2014, which was supposed to be a cost-saving measure. Flint was previously connected to the Detroit water supply, but soon after the switch, residents began complaining of foul odors and discolored water. The lead contamination has been traced to faulty pipes leaking the toxic element into the water supply. Early estimates suggest it could require an investment of $1.5 billion to repair the problems.
The city has since been switched back to Detroit water, and aid has poured in from a variety of sources. With the federal emergency declared, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be dispatched to coordinate disaster relief efforts in and around Flint, and Obama extended an offer to involve other federal agencies if necessary. Celebrities like Cher have responded with their own gestures of humanitarianism, donating some 180,000 bottles of water to Flint residents.
In light of the state government’s slow response to the crisis, Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for Snyder’s resignation. Filmmaker Michael Moore, perhaps Flint’s most famous export, has called the city of Flint a “crime scene” on Twitter, pointing the finger at Snyder. Federal prosecutors are already at work investigating the water crisis to determine whether the governor or any other officials should face charges for mishandling the situation.