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Politicians Work To Remedy Flint Water Crisis


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin sitting in for Scott Simon. It took months of complaints in Flint, Mich., for state officials to acknowledge there was a very serious problem with the water. High levels of lead have leached into the water from old pipes, poisoning the residents of that city. This week, President Obama declared a state of emergency there. Governor Rick Snyder apologized once again and promised to fix the problem. But lacking confidence in the state's ability to address the crisis, the EPA now says it's taking over water testing in Flint. Yesterday, the state shot back, questioning whether the federal order is even legal. Harvey Hollins is the director of Michigan's Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives, and he's now coordinating the state's response to the Flint water crisis. He joins me now from his home in Belleville, Mich. Welcome to the program.

HARVEY HOLLINS: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: The pressure is obviously mounting on you and other state officials to move quickly to address the water situation in Flint. What's your plan?

HOLLINS: We've been moving. As soon as the mayor of the city declared an emergency and the county followed suit, the state declared an emergency in October and since then we've had a - an emergency operation center. And it's doing aggressive work in that city just to meet the short-term needs of the residents there with water filters and cartridges and test kits.

MARTIN: But, you know, residents are saying, sure, we have access to bottled water. That's a temporary solution. When will the water be drinkable?

HOLLINS: Well, the state switched the city off of the Flint River and put them back on the Detroit system, which is the Great Lakes Water Authority now. And the pipes have to be re-coated with phosphates in order to prevent the leaching of metals into the water. That process takes a couple months and it...

MARTIN: A couple months from now?

HOLLINS: No, no, no. It's - we're not - I'm not prepared to say when. But we've been on - actually, the city of Flint has been on the Detroit system for about a month or two. It took about three weeks or four weeks to flush the system, and then you have to, you know, run the water through. So there are individuals monitoring the water. Dr. Edwards is still engaged in Flint. And we're not going to declare that that water is safe to drink until those external experts basically declare that it is so.

MARTIN: President Obama said Thursday his administration is giving $80 million of aid to Michigan. How much of that do you think will go to fixing Flint's infrastructure?

HOLLINS: Well, we're looking at, what can we use that $80 million for? And so that's being discussed right now. The - you know, we requested that that this aid come. However, the White House hasn't shared the parameters of this funding with us yet. And so that's what we're working on right now. And whether or not that - those funds have to be used for drinking water or those funds can be actually used for infrastructure.

MARTIN: So you have no idea yet how much or any - how - if you will get any of that $80 million (unintelligible).

HOLLINS: Well, we'll get the $80 million. That's not - that's not the issue. The issue is, you know, how can we use it that $80 million? And that's what we're negotiating with the White House today.

MARTIN: My colleague, Ari Shapiro, spoke with the mayor of Flint this week. And she said that the trust between the state and the city has essentially been broken and that residents of Flint have felt abandoned. How do you, as the man tasked with leading this effort to fix this problem, how do you start to rebuild that trust?

HOLLINS: Well, trust has to be earned. And those residents and every person who is in that city has to - have every right to be upset and frustrated. Our trust has to be earned to by tangible actions to correct the problem. Talk is cheap, and it's going to take actions to correct this.

MARTIN: Harvey Hollins is the state coordinator for the Flint water crisis. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.

HOLLINS: You're welcome. Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.