FLINT, Mich. (AP) — President Barack Obama wants residents of Flint to know that their needs in recovering from long-term exposure to lead in their drinking water won’t be ignored by the federal government after the public spotlight begins to fade, the White House said.
“This administration will continue to help mobilize the resources necessary that will allow Flint to recover and come back stronger than ever,” spokesman Josh Earnest said as Obama flew to Flint on Wednesday. “He’ll be focused on that even after broader national attention moves on to other things.”
Obama’s first order of business after arriving in Flint was to be updated on the federal response to the crisis, then to meet with city residents. He declared a state of emergency in mid-January and ordered federal aid to supplement the state and local response. At that point, however, the crisis was in full bloom.
It actually took several months for the nation to focus on the beaten-down city’s plight, raising questions about how race and poverty influenced decisions that led to the tainted water supply and the beleaguered response once problems surfaced. More than 40 percent of Flint residents live in poverty and more than half are black.
The White House has also said Obama wouldn’t use the trip to focus on accountability, saying he doesn’t want to be perceived as weighing in on either side of an active investigation.
“This is not an exercise in finger pointing,” Earnest said. “This is an exercise in asserting the responsibility that everybody has to make sure the people of flint have an opportunity to get back on their feet.”
In an effort to save money, the city, while under state management, began drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014. Despite complaints from residents about the smell and taste and health problems, city leaders insisted the water was safe. However, doctors reported last September that the blood of children contained high levels of lead.
The source of the city’s water was subsequently switched back to Detroit, but the lead problem still is not fully solved, and people are drinking filtered or bottled water.
The political and legal fallout is ongoing. An independent commission appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder determined the state was primarily responsible for the water contamination in Flint, and he issued an apology. The Obama administration’s response, through the Environmental Protection Agency, has also come under criticism from Snyder and some in Congress who say the EPA didn’t move with necessary urgency upon hearing of problems.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told Congress that, while staff repeatedly urged the state to address the lack of corrosion controls, “we missed the opportunity late last summer to quickly get EPA’s concerns on the public’s radar screen.” An inspector general is investigating the EPA’s response.
The White House announced Obama’s visit by posting a letter he wrote to 8-year-old Flint resident Mari Copeny, known locally as “Little Miss Flint,” who had asked to meet the president. Obama looked forward to meeting her, Earnest said.
Obama was greeted at the airport by Snyder, Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver. Snyder and Weaver, a Democrat, climbed into Obama’s limousine for the trip to the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, where Obama will be briefed.
The food bank has helped more than 300,000 people in the last year with meals, water and hygiene products.
Congress is also grappling with how to help Flint, but progress has been slow. A Senate committee last week approved a $220 million aid package as part of a broader bill that would authorize nearly $4.8 billion for water-related projects around the country. The bill could come up for a Senate vote in May.
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