The political battle over the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., was fully joined Sunday night when Democratic presidential front runner Hillary Rodham Clinton sided with rival Sen. Bernie Sanders in demanding the resignation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who has repeatedly apologized for the lead poisoning of the city’s water system but refuses to step down.
Snyder claims he was unaware of the water problems in Flint until mid-January of 2016. But emails revealed that an aide to Snyder learned in May about that 10 people had died of legionnaires disease tied to Flint’s water supply. Whether Snyder knew then about the situation or not, he didn’t make the outbreak public until last January.
Related: How the Flint Drinking Water Crisis Became a Political Punching Bag
"The governor should resign or be recalled, and we should support the efforts of citizens attempting to achieve that," Clinton said to thunderous applause at the start of the two-hour debate in Flint that was nationally televised by CNN. Clinton previously stopped well short of demanding the governor’s resignation, even while calling for accountability by city, state and federal officials.
The more Snyder protests his own ignorance, the more people residents say if he didn’t know, he should have known—especially since several state officials were asked to resign over the scandal. And there’s no doubt Snyder’s administration alone is not to blame.
Even the two presidential rivals agreed there was plenty of blame to go around for the crisis – including the governor’s office, state environmental and public health officials, and regional and national Environmental Protection Agency leaders.
Clinton says that at the very least, the state should be sending money immediately to help the city mount a long-term program for replacing the old, corroded pipes that have been leaching lead into the drinking water. “I know the state of Michigan has a rainy-day fund for emergencies,” she said. “It’s raining lead in Flint, and the state is derelict in not coming forward with the money that is required.”
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Snyder, the second-term governor and former businessman who at one time was touted as a potential GOP presidential candidate, has made it clear he will not step down. He tweeted 25 times throughout the Democratic debate last night that he would remain in office and see Flint through its crisis.
Flint’s drinking water was first contaminated by lead in April 2014 after a state-appointed emergency manager ordered the city to switch its source of drinking water from Lake Huron to the heavily polluted Flint River to save money. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality admitted that it failed to add necessary corrosion control chemical to the water. Consequently, lead leached from the ancient pipes into the drinking water of many of the 100,000 residents.
The biggest victims are the estimated 8,000 children under the age of six who may have been exposed to lead in Flint’s water during the past two years before the scandalous mismanagement of the municipal water system was revealed. As a result, there were dangerous spikes in toxic lead levels in the blood of many children. Lead poisoning can lead to brain damage and serious developmental and emotional problems.
One of the biggest problems right now is that the city leaders and state and federal officials and lawmakers are pulling in different directions in trying to address the drinking water fiasco.
Related: Congress Fumbles Again on Funding for the Flint Water Crisis
In mid-February, Snyder announced that his Republican administration had signed an agreement with a Flint-based engineering firm to “study the soundness of the city's water system” and launch a pilot program to replace 30 lead services lines into Flint homes by the end of March.
At the same time, Flint’s new Democratic mayor, Karen Weaver, wants to accelerate the process and begin replacing pipe connections to homes. She has urged the governor to pressure the state Legislature to move swiftly to appropriate money to fund the first phase of her $55 million “Fast Start lead pipe replacement plan.” So far, little government money has made its way to Flint.
Joint funding from the state and federal government will be critical to the long-term success of the effort, but a Senate bipartisan spending package worth $100 million and designed to help address Flint’s water crisis is being held up by arch-conservative Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who insists that no federal aid is required at this time, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Lee is arguing that the spending measure – targeted to help Flint and other communities across the country with emergency drinking water problems – constitutes an unjustifiable “federalizing” of water infrastructure. He added in the statement that the Republican-controlled state has not directly asked Congress for emergency funding and it has its own surplus that could be used to replace the pipes.
Related: Flint’s Drinking Water Crisis Just Got More Toxic with Legionnaire’s Disease
“The only thing Congress is contributing to the Flint recovery is political grandstanding,” Lee said.
Michigan’s two Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, who helped negotiate the compromise legislation after previous failures, voiced surprise and anger that Lee has put a hold on the measure, even after lawmakers agreed to offset the cost of the bill.