Obama assesses Flint water crisis up close
President Barack Obama witnessed first-hand Wednesday how residents of Flint, Michigan, have endured their city’s public health crisis, drinking sips of filtered water in front of cameras as he insisted politicians resolve the man-made disaster.
But even as he demanded more resources for the city, and decried anti-government politics, Obama dismissed suggestions that Flint’s children would be forever stunted after exposure to lead-contaminated water.
“You should be angry,” he told parents crammed into a high school gym in Flint. “But channel that anger. You should be hurt, but don’t sink into despair. And most of all, do not somehow communicate to our children here in this city that they’re going to be saddled with problems for the rest of their lives, because they will not. They’ll do just fine.”
“Kids rise to the expectations that we set for them,” he added later.
Obama traveled to Flint months after the city’s water crisis came to light, initially resisting calls to assess the crisis up close. When officials switched the water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River in 2014, the water wasn’t treated properly and lead from old pipes leached into system.
Residents weren’t initially informed about the dangers, despite tests showing high levels of lead. The presidential visit Wednesday came amid multiple investigations into how poisoned water was allowed to flow into Flint’s homes for months before either the state or federal government raised any alarm.
Obama on Wednesday repeatedly referred to the situation as a “screw up” but said he wasn’t in the city to assign blame.
“I do not believe that anybody consciously wanted to hurt the people in Flint,” he said. “But I do think there’s a larger issue that we have to acknowledge, because I do think that part of what contributed to this crisis was a broader mindset, a bigger attitude, a corrosive attitude that exists in our politics and exists in too many levels of our government. And it’s a mindset that believes that less government is the highest good no matter what.”
“That attitude is as corrosive to our democracy as the stuff that resulted in lead in your water,” he continued. “It leads to systemic neglect. It leads to carelessness and callousness. It leads to a lot of hidden disasters you don’t always read about and aren’t as flashy, but over time diminish the life of a community and make it harder for young people to succeed.”
Obama spoke following a briefing from officials on response efforts to the lead poisoning, which includes new money for filters and expanded access to blood tests for children.
After the session, Obama took a sip from a glass of filtered Flint water, insisting that residents should feel safe doing the same. Later, he called on a staffer to deliver a glass of filtered water during his remarks, which prompted cheers from the crowd.
“It just confirms what we know scientifically, which is that if you’re using a filter, if you’re installing it, then Flint water at this point is drinkable,” he said, noting that didn’t negate the need to replace some of the old pipes.
But he also suggested that some lead exposure in children wouldn’t necessarily lead to dire consequences.
“We’ve got an entire couple of generations of Americans that have done really well despite the fact they may have had something that is not optimal,” Obama said, noting that he himself was likely exposed to lead paint as a child.
Harsh reception for Snyder
Aside from the briefing, Obama met for a neighborhood roundtable with families affected by the lead poisoning, which came to light last year. He also met with Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who has withstood calls to resign over the water disaster.
When Snyder appeared on stage before Obama’s remarks began, he was loudly jeered by the 1,000-person crowd.
“Let me begin by saying I understand why you are angry and frustrated. I want to come here today to apologize,” Snyder told the crowd, who loudly rejected his message. Later, when he declared that “government failed you,” a person in the crowd loudly responded, “You failed us.”
Obama hasn’t weighed in explicitly on Snyder’s handling of the crisis, though Democratic 2016 hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have called on him to resign.
Both of those candidates have seized on the Flint water issue, traveling to the city to spotlight the city’s predicament. CNN sponsored a March 3 primary debate between Clinton and Sanders in the city, which was already weathering an economic downturn when the contaminated water arrived.
In his remarks Wednesday, Obama claimed communities like Flint were too often at the bottom of politicians’ agendas.
“We especially underinvest when the communities that are put at risk are poor, or don’t have a lot of political clout, and so are often not as heard in the corridors of power,” he said. “This kind of thinking — this myth that government’s always the enemy — that forgets that our government is us. It’s us. That it’s an extension of us, ourselves.”
Obama pressed Congress Wednesday for more emergency funding for the city, including pushing a recently introduced water infrastructure package contains $100 million to repair Flint’s water system, along with $50 million for health care needs.
And he met with 8-year-old Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny, who has pressed lawmakers to scale up their response to her city’s water problems. Responding to a letter she wrote him, Obama told Copeny he wanted to “make sure people like you and your family are receiving the help you need and deserve.”
Copeny told CNN last week the water in her city had not improved.
“It has lead in the water and it gives you really bad headaches as well and you smell like bleach and fish,” she said.
By Kevin Liptak