LANSING - President Barack Obama arrives in Flint Wednesday to witness first-hand a 2-year-old contaminated drinking water crisis amid growing calls for a stronger federal role in fixing the man-made catastrophe.
Obama's visit underscores the need for cooperation at all levels of government to make Flint's water safe to drink, but also highlights ongoing tensions between Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the Democratic president, and between Snyder and the city's Democratic Mayor Karen Weaver.
It also comes amid growing frustrations with actions taken -- and not taken -- so far, particularly by the State of Michigan.
"There's still people taking baths with baby wipes -- this has been two years," said Liette Gidlow, an associate professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Obama's visit is "an opportunity to refocus the attention on the people of Flint," and "I hope it will foster greater cooperation ... between all the parties who want to help."
Obama, who is to arrive at Bishop Airport aboard Air Force One, plans briefings with federal officials, Snyder and Weaver; meetings with Flint children, a neighborhood round-table discussion, and a speech to about 1,000 people at a Flint high school.
The Rev. Allen Overton, chairman of the Coalition for Clean Water in Flint and a member of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, said "we've given the governor ample time to step up and really deliver some solutions to this problem, and he hasn't done it."
"I'd like for (Obama) to come to Flint and say the federal government is going to take over the entire operation," Overton told the Free Press on Tuesday.
"I'm not sure they're going to move any quicker, but I don't trust the pace that we're on right now."
Josh Pasek, an assistant professor of communications studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said the Snyder administration was either "completely inept or completely unaware" in recognizing the crisis, and its initial response was slow.
But since then, it is difficult to judge whether the state is responding in an appropriate and timely manner or not, he said.
"Infrastructure is slow stuff," be it replacing pipes or using phosphates to build up a new protective coating on existing ones, Pasek said. One reason it is difficult to judge the pace of the response is because "there's nothing to compare it to."
Snyder, who on Monday requested a meeting with Obama in Flint after earlier saying his schedule was full that day, will participate in a briefing, a spokesman said Tuesday.
"Gov. Snyder will greet President Obama at Bishop Airport and then participate in a briefing of the president with federal officials," said Snyder spokesman Ari Adler.
"The governor is pleased to meet with the president to help explain the efforts under way by the state to help the people of Flint recover and the need for additional and ongoing federal support to address the initial failure at all levels of government."
Weaver also is expected to meet with Obama. The president's press secretary, Josh Earnest, said Tuesday there may be an opportunity for Obama to meet with both Snyder and Weaver separately from the briefing the governor and mayor will attend with federal officials at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.
Obama is to speak at Northwestern High School in Flint on Wednesday afternoon.
Before visiting the high school, Obama will "take part in a neighborhood roundtable discussion where he will hear from Flint residents dealing firsthand with the impacts of the crisis," Earnest said.
The frustration and criticism from Flint residents relates to the length of time it is taking to restore safe drinking water to the city of nearly 100,000, after more than two years of toxic lead leaching into tap water. The rebukes have also come in the form of calls for Snyder's resignation. The governor has rejected those calls, saying he is determined to put things right in Flint.
Flint's water became contaminated with lead in April 2014 when the city, while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its drinking water source from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit water system to Flint River water treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials have acknowledged a disastrous mistake when they failed to require the city to add corrosion-control chemicals as part of the treatment process.
The corrosive water caused lead to leach from pipes, joints and fixtures. Although Flint reconnected to Detroit water in October, the risk remains because of damage to the water infrastructure system.
Officials also are exploring possible links between the river water and outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease tied to 12 area deaths.
The state and city are now treating the pipes with higher levels of phosphates in an effort to build up a protective coating that will prevent lead from leaching. Having more water flowing in the system would help that process, and that's one reason Snyder and other state officials want Flint residents to start using their taps again.
The president's visit, which was announced last week, comes after Obama received a letter in March from an 8-year-old Flint girl, Amariyanna (Mari) Copeny, who is known as "Little Miss Flint." She had asked for a meeting with the president while she was in Washington, saying it "would really lift people's spirits."
While that meeting didn't happen, Obama sent Mari a personal letter last week saying he was coming to Flint and he hoped to meet her then.
"Flint residents need to know that when the cameras are gone, the administration’s support for the state and local response efforts will continue," Earnest said Tuesday. "And the president looks forward to meeting with Mari and her family while he’s in Flint tomorrow as well."
It's possible Obama also will meet Sincere Smith, the 3-year-old who became a recognizable face of the crisis when he was featured on the cover of Time magazine in January. The White House invited the boy and his mother to the high school event.
The Snyder administration acknowledged a lead-poisoning problem around Oct. 1, after months of denials amid long-standing complaints about the color and odor of the water, rashes and unexplained sicknesses. Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint on Jan. 5 and a week later deployed the Michigan National Guard to help distribute bottled water, filters, filter cartridges and water testing kits.
Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint on Jan. 16 and has granted a waiver to significantly expand Medicaid coverage in Flint.
Snyder has sometimes been critical of the federal government for not providing more assistance and has appealed for a federal disaster declaration, which the U.S. government reserves for natural disasters, not man-made ones.
Snyder and Weaver have clashed over how quickly the city's lead service lines should be replaced, among other issues.
In Washington, U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both D-Mich., have been pushing a bipartisan measure which could provide some $220 million for improving water infrastructure and paying for additional public health responses to lead contamination across the U.S. -- $100 million of which could go to Flint in the form of grants or low-interest loans to help replace lead service lines. So far, the measure has been stymied in the Senate – most notably by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who considers it a “federalizing” of what he considers local responsibilities -- though its recent inclusion in a nationwide ports, harbors and navigation bill likely improves its chances of passage.
In Lansing, the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a supplemental funding bill of $144.4 million in state funding for Flint, which includes $42.1 million in federal dollars, according to a Senate Fiscal Agency analysis.
Senate Bill 777 now awaits approval in the full Senate, as well as the state House.
Earlier, the Legislature approved $9.3 million in October to help the City of Flint reconnect to the Detroit Water and Sewerage System; $28 million in January for a variety of services, and $30 million in February to reduce the size of water bills for residents who were being charged for water that they couldn’t drink because of the lead contamination.
"The state has delivered water, filters, food, nurses in schools, new fixtures in schools and day cares, expanded healthcare coverage, expanded early education classes, money for water bill relief, money to replace service lines to more than 500 homes, jobs for residents and more," Adler said.
"People are frustrated and tired of this problem, and the Governor understands that," but because lead pipes must be dealt with carefully to avoid making matters worse, "we must be responsible in fixing the problem so that the protection of the people of Flint can remain a top consideration."
The Legislature, as of Tuesday, still had not given final approval to a Medicaid expansion for Flint that Snyder sought and that Obama granted two months ago.
The expanded health coverage will apply to people under 21 and pregnant women.
Gidlow, of WSU, said it's notable that Obama will hold a neighborhood roundtable and speak at a high school on his first day in Flint, while Snyder has relied on telephone town hall meetings and has not held a live community forum where residents can question him during his frequent visits to Flint.
"He still hasn't faced the music," she said.
Overton said he's worried about the water crisis dragging on through the summer.
"People are kind of on edge," he said. "We're just one good rally from a major catastrophe."
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