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Feb 5, 2016 9:58 PM

Snyder defends office's handling of Legionnaires' outbreak

The Associated Press

FLINT, Mich. (AP) Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday defended how his office responded to an email flagging a potential link between a surge in Legionnaires' disease and Flint's water, saying an aide asked for further investigation but a state agency did not bring forward the issue again.

The governor, who has come under criticism for not publicly disclosing the spike in Legionnaires' cases until 10 months later, told The Associated Press that his director of urban initiatives, Harvey Hollins, asked the Department of Environmental Quality to look into it after getting the March email.

The DEQ "didn't think there was a lot of base for it if you look at the email. Harvey, not being a technical expert, pushed back to say, 'You need to look into this and if you find an issue, bring it to the governor.' I think he was trying to respond appropriately, and the DEQ didn't bring it forward," Snyder said after visiting Our Lady Guadalupe Catholic Church, where volunteers have been distributing water and filters to the church's predominantly Latino parishioners.

There were at least 87 cases across Genesee County during a 17-month period, including nine deaths, but the public was never told about the increase when it was happening. Snyder publicly announced the outbreak last month, saying he had learned about it just a couple of days earlier.

The back and forth behind the scenes occurred while residents were complaining about poor water quality, even before lead contamination became an extraordinary health emergency roughly six months later.

The director and communications director at the DEQ resigned in December. Snyder announced the firing Friday of Liane Shekter Smith, the former chief of the DEQ's Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance who had previously been reassigned and later suspended; the department continues to review the actions of a second employee who was suspended last month.

Snyder said one reason he made the staff changes was because "I wasn't getting the information that I should have."

At the church and its adjacent activity center which was full of bottled water and other supplies Snyder thanked volunteers and met with Deacon Omar Odette to discuss ways the state can help with logistics like a forklift and to address any issues ensuring non-English speakers or immigrants living in the U.S. illegally get water.

"They didn't teach me this stuff in seminary," Odette said.

Some immigrants initially were turned away or scared off from water stations because they did not have identification. The state last month said ID is not required to pick up free bottled water, filters, replacement cartridges and water testing kits.

The church of 450 families began giving out water because of concerns that Spanish-only speaking people were not being reached.

"Our people have got that little bit of fear still. We're trying to eliminate that, and I think we're getting there," said Odette, who said information in Spanish is now available to educate residents, including billboards that boiling water does not make it safe to drink.

Rick Vasquez, a Flint resident who is coordinating the church's relief effort, told Snyder: "A lot of people like myself live right in the middle of this crisis and a lot of people like me are getting tired of taking a shower in buckets of water. ... We desperately need your help."

Snyder responded that he is working hard to fix the problem. He said lead pipes are being recoated with chemicals that were not added to control corrosion after the decision in 2014 to use the Flint River as the city's water source. He also said his administration is analyzing longer-term infrastructure needs.

A task force Snyder appointed to investigate the crisis has concluded that the DEQ is primarily to blame for not requiring the chemicals, which allowed lead to leach into the water.

Snyder told the AP that while he is focused on committing state funds toward Flint the Michigan Senate this week approved $30 million to reimburse water customers he also is hopeful for more federal aid than the $5 million authorized under President Barack Obama's emergency declaration. The U.S. Senate is deadlocked for now on spending hundreds of millions of dollars fixing and replacing the pipes.

Flint will receive visits Saturday from Democratic U.S. House members and Sunday from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has criticized Snyder for what happened in Flint.

Snyder, who has apologized, said he wished the national discourse about Flint "was more focused on solutions," and he complained of people "spending time on blame issues" instead of waiting for multiple investigations to be finished.


Follow David Eggert at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert .


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