President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, Michigan on Saturday, signing off on federal aid to assist the city amid an intensifying public health crisis caused by widespread water contamination.
Obama's action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate disaster relief efforts with local and state authorities.
The emergency assistance, which was requested by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, will provide water, water filters, water filter cartridges, water test kits, and "other necessary related items" for three months.
On January 5, Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint, a former automobile manufacturing hub about 70 miles northwest of Detroit, where the city's 30,000 households are at risk of lead poisoning due to citywide contamination in the water system. Just four days ago, Snyder called in the Michigan National Guard to help distribute bottled water and filters in Flint.
Meanwhile, Democratic presidential hopeful and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has called on Snyder to resign. "There are no excuses," Sanders said in a statement. "The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint's water. He did nothing. As a result, hundreds of children were poisoned. Thousands may have been exposed to potential brain damage from the lead."
Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, has also condemned the crisis, calling it "unconscionable." Republican frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have yet to publicly comment on the situation.
The federal intervention is just the latest chapter in Flint's saga. The city, the birthplace of General Motors, was hit particularly hard by turmoil in the automobile industry. In a bid to save money in April 2014, the city opted to switch its water source from the Detroit Water Authority. As a "temporary measure" until the city connected to a new regional water system, Flint started to draw its water from the Flint River. Residents immediately started complaining about the smell, taste, and appearance of the water. Some residents reported rashes and hair loss, among other issues.
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In August 2014, the city's water tested positive for E Coli bacteria, and residents were strongly advised to boil the water before drinking it. In August 2015, a study by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Flint's Hurley Medical Center found high levels of lead in blood samples from the city's children, particularly in comparison to the period before the city started using Flint River water.
"This is not something you mess around with," Hanna-Attisha told the Detroit Free Press in September. "Our population already has so many issues from poverty, from unemployment, from violence."
As the state and governor's office began to acknowledge the severity of the issue, reporting from the American Civil Liberties Union and local media uncovered a failure on the part of the Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to make sure national water regulations were met when the switch was made.
The state-appointed Flint Water Advisory Task Force concluded that the MDEQ was at fault for the lead contamination. By failing to ensure the proper anti-corrosives were used in treating the water, chemicals from the water eroded the city's piping system. Pipes leached lead into the water, which then flowed through the taps across the city.
The US Department of Justice announced in January that it would investigate the issue. Despite all of the attention and controversy, State Senator Jim Ananich has said the state government has not done enough to fix the problem.
"It's clear the state was responsible for this crisis, so it's also responsible for providing the resources to fix it," Ananich said. "Although we may not see the full effects of the damage for years, we can't wait that long to deliver desperately needed aid."
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