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Obama pledges federal help for water crisis in Flint, Mich.

Speaking to autoworkers in Detroit on Wednesday, President Barack Obama addresses the high levels of lead in Flint’s water.
Speaking to autoworkers in Detroit on Wednesday, President Barack Obama addresses the high levels of lead in Flint’s water.
Published Jan. 21, 2016

DETROIT — President Barack Obama on Wednesday hailed the revival of the nation's auto industry while acknowledging the water crisis in nearby Flint, Mich., saying the detection of high levels of lead serve as a reminder that the government can't shortchange basic services.

Speaking to autoworkers after taking in the North American International Auto Show, Obama said, "I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kid's health could be at risk." He met with Flint's mayor the day before and promised federal help.

"What is inexplicable and inexcusable is once people figured out there was a problem and that there was lead in the water, the notion that immediately families weren't notified, things weren't shut down — that shouldn't happen anywhere," Obama told CBS News in an interview scheduled for broadcast Sunday.

"It's also an indication of sometimes we downplay the role that an effective government has to play in protecting public health and safety of people and clearly the system here broke down," he said. CBS released a clip of the interview on Wednesday.

Obama spoke at the UAW-GM Center for Human Resources, the national headquarters of the joint relationship between the United Auto Workers and General Motors. His visit took place as longstanding problems with Flint's drinking water have begun to capture the nation's attention.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder asked Obama on Wednesday to reconsider his denial of a federal disaster declaration to address the crisis, saying its severity poses an "imminent and long-term threat" to residents. Obama declared an emergency — qualifying the city for $5 million — but determined that it is not a disaster based on the legal requirement that such additional relief is intended for natural events, fires, floods or explosions.

Snyder also on Wednesday released emails related to his role in the drinking water crisis.

The emails show that Snyder's staffers worried in September that the issue of lead in Flint's drinking water was being politicized and that the state's role in the crisis was being exaggerated.

"I can't figure out why the state is responsible except that (then-treasurer Andy) Dillon did make the ultimate decision so we're not able to avoid the subject," Snyder's chief of staff Dennis Muchmore wrote to Snyder in a Sept. 25 email.

He followed it up the next morning writing: "The real responsibility rests with the county, city and KWA," referring to the Karegnondi Water Authority. "But since the issue here is the health of citizens and their children we're taking a proactive approach."

Muchmore's email was included in 274 pages of Snyder's emails released Wednesday in wake of the water crisis that has led protesters to call for the governor to resign.

Muchmore, who retired Tuesday as Snyder's chief of staff, told the Detroit Free Press that when he said Dillon made the ultimate decision, he meant that the Flint emergency manager reported to Dillon and Dillon "signed off on it."

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Muchmore said he was referencing Flint's decision to go with the Karegnondi Water Authority, a decision that was supported by the locals and the Flint City Council, which endorsed it with a 7-1 vote.

Muchmore said the Flint River had always been the backup water source and while there is some disagreement about the issue, no one really talked about the significance of using the Flint River until after it happened and complaints started pouring in.

"Everybody thought professionals will treat this water and they will make it good," Muchmore said.

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