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Michigan Calls in the National Guard to Distribute Water to the City of Flint

The state had to send troops to help a desperately poor city, because people there cannot use their lead-contaminated tap water.

by Kayla Ruble
Jan 13 2016, 8:20pm

Anthony Fordham picks up bottled water from the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan to deliver to a school in Flint, Michigan December 16, 2015. Photo by Rebecca Cook / Reuters

The state of Michigan has activated its National Guard. The reserve forces can be called up in cases of natural disasters or domestic emergencies, but this time around the state's governor is dispatching the troops to tackle a spiraling water crisis gripping the city of Flint.

Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder announced the plan late Tuesday evening, saying that around 30 National Guard members would be sent to the town located 60 miles (100 km) north of Detroit. They will be charged with handing out bottled water, water filters, and making home deliveries to the thousands in the city in need of clean drinking water as the city grapples with lead contamination that has plagued residents' taps for the last year.

"As we work to ensure that all Flint residents have access to clean and safe drinking water, we are providing them with the direct assistance they need in order to stretch our resources further," Snyder said in a statement announcing the decision. "The Michigan National Guard is trained and ready to assist the citizens of Flint."

This is the first time the state has mobilized the National Guard since 2012, when a forest fire tore through Michigan's Upper Peninsula — the third largest fire in its history. Snyder has also called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help in tackling the problem by unifying response efforts from other government bodies.

Snyder's announcement comes just a week after he declared a state of emergency in Flint, where the city's 30,000 households are at risk for lead exposure due to citywide contamination in the water system. The move also follows recent criticism by policymakers and journalists that Snyder and the state government were not doing enough to get drinking water to Flint residents. During a press conference on Monday, Snyder was confronted with accusations that there was not enough water available at stations that have been set up with the purpose of handing it out to citizens in need.

"I trust that the good men and women of the National Guard will jumpstart the administration's lackluster response to this public health crisis," Flint's state senator, Democrat Jim Ananich, said in a statement. "Sadly, myself and many leaders of my community have advocated for this type of response for months."

Sending the National Guard  is just the latest event in a months-long saga revolving around the water in Flint, a city of just under 100,000 people and the birthplace of General Motors. Flint, which has been hit hard by automotive industry turmoil, losing more than 80,000 GM jobs over the last 30 years, saw its latest trouble start in 2014 when the city opted to switch its water source from the Detroit Water Authority. While Flint awaited a new water authority of its own, a state-appointed emergency manager — brought in by the governor to balance the city's deficit — approved a decision to begin using water from the Flint River in the meantime.

Soon after the water was switched, residents began complaining about water quality and concerns they were getting sick as a result. 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 these were largely dismissed by officials. But in August 2015, a study by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Flint's Hurley Medical Center found high blood lead levels in 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 back in September as the controversy grew. "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 ensuing 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, and pipes leached lead which then flowed into the taps of homeowners.

The US Department of Justice announced in January that it would investigate the issue. Despite all of the attention and controversy, state senator Ananich said the state government has not done enough to fix the problem. On Wednesday, he called for emergency funding to help address the growing public health crisis in Flint — particularly with the consideration that a generation of children exposed to lead will need continued care.

"It's clear the state was responsible for this crisis, so it's also responsible for providing the resources to fix it," Sen. 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." 

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB