A cooler of bottled water labeled "Flint Water" sat on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol building on Monday evening as protesters gathered on the premises ahead of Governor Rick Snyder's State of the State address. The speech was being delivered as a storm of controversy enveloped Snyder's administration and officials throughout Michigan over the crippling water crisis in the city of Flint.
"Free Flint Water!" a man standing by the cooler shouted into a megaphone. "Governor Snyder, we have to pay double the price! You get it for free!"
The site was soon the scene of dozens of protesters marching up the steps chanting slogans like "Snyder must go!" while holding placards that proclaimed "Flint Lives Matter."
Earlier this month, Snyder declared a state of emergency for the city of just under 100,000 people, who are at risk for toxic lead exposure due to citywide contamination in the water system. Following criticism that clean water was not being distributed efficiently to the city's residents, the governor called in the National Guard for assistance, and President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency over the weekend, authorizing $5 million of federal assistance, though he stopped short of declaring the crisis a "major disaster."
Flint's water trouble began in 2013 when the city decided to stop buying treated Lake Huron water from the city of Detroit and get water from the Karegnondi Water Authority instead. Under the leadership of a state-appointed emergency manager who was brought in by Snyder to balance the city's deficit, the city decided in April 2014 to use the Flint River as its water source in order to save $5 million over less than two years until the new infrastructure connecting to KWA was finished.
But the river's corrosive water leached lead from old pipes, and residents soon widely complained of various health issues and brown liquid pouring from faucets. In August 2014, the city's water tested positive for E. Coli bacteria, and the city issued an order to boil water.
Community concerns persisted over the course of the next year, although officials largely dismissed them. But a study by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Flint's Hurley Medical Center last summer found alarming levels of lead in the city's children. She determined that the share of children who had elevated levels of lead in their blood had nearly doubled since the shift to the polluted Flint River's water.
Apart from lead poisoning, which can raise a host of development issues and for which there is no cure, a Legionnaires' disease outbreak has infected 87 people and killed 10 of them so far. Symptoms of the disease, which affects the lungs and resembles pneumonia, include difficulty breathing, high fever, and muscle aches.
"We been dealing with this for so long. They knew about it, and there's still no answers," remarked 34-year-old Flint resident and protester Law Greggs as he marched around the capitol building. "We need a real fix."
(Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)
A crowd of demonstrators came out despite below-freezing temperatures, as Snyder took to the legislature floor to deliver arguably the most important speech of his tenure in office.
"Today will be a different State of the State address," Snyder said, shortly before announcing increased transparency measures, a boosted National Guard presence, and plans to push for nearly $30 million in additional emergency funding. Addressing the residents of Flint, he said, "Your families face a crisis — a crisis you did not create and could not have prevented."
Officials, experts, and activists have criticized the states response, which saw nearly six months pass between Dr. Hanna-Attisha's report and the declaration of a state of emergency. Meanwhile, residents across the city had stopped drinking the city water in early 2015, and were forced to purchase bottled water out of their own pocket until state help arrived this month.
"We are absolutely committed to taking the right steps to effectively solve this crisis," Snyder remarked during his speech. "To you the people of Flint, I say tonight as I have before, 'I am sorry and I will fix it.' No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe."
He spoke to the loss of confidence that has occurred due to the spiraling water contamination crisis.
"Government failed you — federal, state, and local leaders," said Snyder, who has weathered strident calls for his resignation from members of the public. "I'm sorry most of all that I let you down. You deserve better. You deserve accountability." He said that he plans to work hand in hand with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver "so we can rebuild the trust that's been broken."
While outlining a timeline with details of what occurred over the course of the last year, Snyder also announced that he would release his emails from 2014 and 2015 for them to be scrutinized. The governor's emails have come under focus as a result of the Flint water crisis; a longstanding Michigan law exempts the state's highest office from freedom of information requests.
Snyder also reiterated his plans to appeal Obama's decision not to declare Flint a disaster zone.
With thousands of residents grappling with the daily stress of using bottled water for everyday tasks like showering, cooking, and brushing teeth, there has been growing public skepticism of local and state officials. Residents of Flint — which has long been a depressed area due to automotive industry turmoil, losing more than 80,000 General Motors jobs over the last 30 years — began complaining about brown water and rashes nearly a year ago, after all. But these cries were largely brushed off by officials who said it was safe to drink the water.
Reports from the American Civil Liberties Union, researchers, and journalists indicate that there was awareness about the issue within the Environmental Protection Agency and state-level Department of Environmental Quality, however. Conspiracy theories swirl on the streets of Flint about potential cover-ups, speculation about who knew what, and how long they knew it.
Jeanette Waldrop, a retiree who has lived on the city's south side for nearly 40 years, is one of many who thinks local and state officials should have known that Flint River water would cause problems. Despite decades of economic turmoil and Flint's consistent ranking as one of the country's most violent cities, the water crisis is what ultimately ended her trust in the government. Waldrop said that she had no interest in listening to what Snyder had to say.
"I don't trust none of them," she said. "It's going to be the same old rhetoric. I'm not going to believe anything he says."
For most protesters, Snyder's penitence on the issue is too little too late. According to Greggs, a declaration of immediate action is the only thing that would have satisfied him from tonight's state of state address.
"I'm fixing the pipes tonight! We digging tonight — other than that I don't wanna hear nothing," he said.
"He snuck into town last week," he added of Snyder. "He's lucky we didn't catch him. We would have made him drink the water."
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB