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As Obama Travels to Flint, Congress Has Yet to Help Lead-Contaminated Cities

The president makes a visit to Flint on Wednesday, a city that has become synonymous with failed government and America's crumbling infrastructure.
Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP

Kathleen Tomczyk won't go see President Barack Obama when he visits Flint, Michigan on Wednesday. She's happy he's coming, but she doesn't have time.

Instead, the 72-year-old bookkeeper will be at St. Mary's Church, in a poor part of the mostly African American city, coordinating volunteers who go door-to-door with bottled water, as she has been doing six or seven days a week since it was revealed that Flint's water had been contaminated with lead.


"It feels like it's been forever," Tomczyk said.

Wednesday's presidential visit comes just over two years after the crisis began with the state government's April 2014 decision to switch the city's water supply from the Detroit utility system to the corrosive water of the Flint River. But it was not until last fall that a group of independent researchers and physicians confirmed what citizens had long suspected and government officials denied: Lead leaching out of old piping had made Flint water unsafe to drink or even bath in.

Since Michigan officials admitted six months ago that the water coming out of Flint's taps is tainted, the city's name has become shorthand for the dire consequences of government failure and America's crumbling infrastructure. While in Washington DC the crisis has rapidly turned into a partisan issue, as politicians squabble over whether state or federal officials are to blame.

But in Flint, progress has been limited and Tomczyk said she has grown accustomed to seeing desperation in the faces of those who come to St. Mary's asking for water.

"The people who come to us now are regulars," she said. "You can see the despair, the tiredness in their eyes."

Related: Obama Declares State of Emergency in Flint, Michigan Amid Ongoing Water Crisis

Flint is back on Detroit water and last month the group of government and independent researchers tasked with monitoring the water said that the coating that prevents lead from seeping out of pipes had been partially restored. The group says that properly filtered water should be safe, although at-risk populations including children and pregnant women are advised to continue drinking bottled water, and unfiltered water remains dangerous.


The problem runs deep, as many Flint homes are connected to the water system by lead service lines — something the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates is true of 7.3 million households throughout the United States

Michigan's Republican governor Rick Snyder wrote Obama in January asking for federal assistance in replacing and repairing Flint's water infrastructure, a job with an estimated price tag of between $700 million and $1 billion. But funds have proved hard to find and White House press secretary Josh Earnest said last week that the Obama administration hopes the visit would call attention to congressional Republicans' refusal to fund further aid to Flint.

In congressional hearings on the crisis, Republicans have placed blame on the federal government, especially EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, rather than on Snyder's administration. But on the question of funding aid to the city, Republican Majority Whip John Cornyn has said responsibility falls to the state.

"I think we need to be careful here because while we all have sympathy for what's happened in Flint, this is primarily a local and state responsibility," the Senator told reporters in January following the proposal of a $600 million aid package. "Given the fact that we have about $19 trillion in debt I think it's fair to ask: Do we want to have the federal government replacing all the infrastructure put in place by cities and states all across the country."


After months bogged down in committee, the Senate is preparing to vote on a bill that could circumvent roadblocks in the House and provide grants and loans to Flint. It would budget $100 million for emergency infrastructure repairs, although the funds would not be specifically earmarked for Flint.

Dan Kildee, the Democratic congressman who represents Flint, agreed entirely that the situation in his home city is the responsibility of the Snyder administration, but said that federal support is still badly needed in both the form of immediate aid and to funding to long run solutions.

"If I had any confidence whatsoever that the state government had the willingness to fix the problem that it created, perhaps the need for federal help wouldn't be present," said Kildee. "But I've see no indication that the state can live up to its responsibility."

Related: Lead Contamination Poses Hazards Far Beyond Flint

Tomczyk, the church bookkeeper, she didn't much care where funding for aid to Flint came from, as long as it comes — and quickly. She also advised citizens around the country to look closely at their own water utilities, hoping that the suffering of those in Flint might serve to prevent future tragedies.

This is a point supported by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which in its 2013 report card gave the country's drinking water infrastructure a D.

Greg DiLoreto, the former ASCE president and chair of the committee drawing up the next national report card, said that unless all levels of government decide to reinvest in water infrastructure the consequences will be grim.

"If we don't start making this investment, we're going to have other Flint, Michigans," said DiLoreto. "They may not be a lead problem, but they'll be something else."

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg