Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said he had failed Flint residents but pledged to take new steps to fix the city's drinking water crisis, starting with committing millions in state funding and deploying more National Guard members.
The second-term Republican, who devoted most of his annual State of the State speech Tuesday night to the emergency in Flint, also pledged greater transparency. He said he would release on Wednesday his own emails regarding Flint's water, which became contaminated with too much lead when the city switched its water source in 2014 as a cost-cutting measure.
"I'm sorry most of all that I let you down," Snyder said in the 49-minute address, which came as his administration is engulfed in criticism from across the country and as hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside the Capitol. "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, and I have a responsibility to tell the truth."
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The lead contamination — which can lead to behaviour problems and learning disabilities in children and kidney ailments in adults — has left Flint residents unable to drink unfiltered tap water. The National Guard, state employees, local authorities and volunteers have been distributing lead tests, filters and bottled water. Snyder aides pledged that by the end of the week officials would visit every household in Flint to ensure they have water filters.
Democrats said Snyder only recently admitted the magnitude of the fiasco, at least three months too late.
"This is the kind of disaster, the kind of failure to deliver basic services that hurts people's trust in government," House Minority Leader Tim Greimel said.
Additional money pledged for tests, repairs
In his speech, Snyder committed $28 million US more in the short term to pay for more filters, bottled water, school nurses, intervention specialists, testing and monitoring — on top of $10.6 million allocated in the fall. The money also would replace plumbing fixtures in schools with lead problems and could help Flint with unpaid water bills.
The new round of funding, which requires approval from the GOP-led Legislature, is intended as another short-range step while Snyder works to get a better handle on the long-range costs. He plans to make a bigger request in his February budget proposal.
Snyder also announced the deployment of roughly 130 more National Guard members to the city and revealed his appeal of President Barack Obama's denial of a federal disaster declaration for the area.
"To you, the people of Flint, I say tonight as I have before: I am sorry, and I will fix it," he said.
Snyder, a former venture capitalist and computer executive who took office in 2011 billing himself as a practical decision-maker and a "tough nerd," has rejected calls for his resignation. He has previously apologized for regulatory failures and for an underwhelming initial response and on Tuesday outlined a timeline of the "catastrophe" dating to 2013, and blamed it on failures at the federal, state and local level.
The crisis began when Flint, about an hour's drive from Detroit, switched its water supply from Detroit's system to the Flint River in 2014 to save money while under state financial management. Michigan's top environmental regulator Dan Wyant resigned over the failure to ensure that the Flint River water was properly treated to keep lead from pipes from leaching into the water.
EPA also under scrutiny
Elevated blood-lead levels were found in two city zip codes.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended the address, said Snyder's contrition "does not mitigate the crime that has been committed." But Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said Snyder is a "real leader who took responsibility even though he did not cause the situation."
The U.S. Justice Department is helping the Environmental Protection Agency investigate, and GOP state Attorney General Bill Schuette has opened his own probe, which could focus on whether environmental laws were broken or if there was official misconduct. The EPA is under scrutiny for its role, too.
Retired nurse Lynn Hier of the northwestern Detroit suburb of New Baltimore joined the protest outside the statehouse on Tuesday. She called on Snyder to fire the district's state-appointed emergency manager, Darnell Earley, because he also was an emergency manager in Flint at the time of the water switch.
"He's not going to be anyone that anybody trusts," Hier said.