After building concern and public outcry about water quality in Flint, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) declared a state of emergency for Genesee County Tuesday.
The move comes as part of an effort by the state to provide restitution for the health damages Flint’s residents experienced due to tainted water and ensure the city’s water safety in the future. Snyder had previously accepted the resignation of Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, on Dec. 29. Brad Wurfel, the public information officer for the Department of Environmental Quality, also resigned in December.
It followed a confirmation from the U.S. Attorney’s Office that it, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, would investigate the quality issues.
The crisis began after the city of Flint switched from Detroit city water to using the Flint River as their primary water source. Following the switch in April 2014, residents began to notice a change in the water’s quality as well as adverse health affects like hair loss and rotted teeth. Testing later revealed an unsafe amount of lead and trihalomethanes — a carcinogenic chlorine byproduct — in the water.
The Flint Water Advisory Task Force was assigned to investigate the mishaps in Flint’s handling of their water in October 2015. Wyant’s resignation, as well as other state efforts, are in response to the task force’s findings.
“The health and welfare of Flint residents is a top priority and we’re committed to a coordinated approach with resources from state agencies to address all aspects of this situation,” Snyder said in a press release Tuesday. “Working in full partnership with the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, all levels of government and water quality experts, we will find both short-term and long-term solutions to ensure the health and safety of Flint residents.”
In a statement, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said despite knowing Wyant to be a hard working public servant, he believed Wynat’s resignation was necessary to rebuilding the public’s trust in the state.
“In my 20-plus years of knowing him, Dan has been a hardworking, dedicated public servant,” Schuette said. “I am committed to working with all parties, including the legislature and Governor, to ensure the public’s health and the well being of Michigan residents.”
Though the city admitted to violating the federal Safe Water Drinking Act for the unsafe amount of trihalomethanes in January 2015, Flint’s emergency manager chose to keep their current water filtration system for nine more months.
In October, the city struck a deal to begin purchasing water from Detroit again, amid the ongoing investigation into the city’s water quality concerns.
“When I became aware that the city of Flint’s water showed elevated lead levels… I appointed an independent task force to identify possible missteps and areas for improvement,” Snyder noted in a statement released in December.
The state government’s response to the crisis has drawn significant criticism, especially from interest groups in the state, as well as engagement from colleges in the area.
Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, a political organization whose mission is to hold government officials accountable, said in a statement he believes Michigan officials have not taken responsibility for the issues surrounding Flint’s water supply.
“Dan Wyant gets to walk away from this crisis, but the people of Flint do not,” Scott said. “We need complete transparency so that justice for the families of Flint can be realized and the proper people can be held accountable. All documentation related to this crisis needs to be released to the public immediately.”
The crisis has also prompted University engagement, with faculty at UM-Flint slated to offer a special course on the water crisis and other local issues. Starting this semester, the class will feature panel discussions with leaders and experts in the field.
Suzanne Selig, director of the Department of Public Health and Health Sciences at UM-Flint, hopes this class will benefit the entire community, she said in a statement.
“We want to promote a further understanding of this crisis and discuss lessons learned as we move forward together to promote better health for all in our community,” Selig said. “The students will have an opportunity to ‘see’ community engagement and how we can all benefit from an open dialogue.”
In a January release, Snyder said he hopes the state actions being taken now will help to protect the health of Flint residents both in the short and long term.
“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,” Snyder said. “And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience, because Flint is not the only city that has an aging infrastructure.”