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Flint Needs Long-Term Solutions To Unsafe Water, State Official Says


The state of Michigan has a message for the federal government - a little help here? Having apologized for disastrous moves that contaminated drinking water in Flint, Mich., with lead, the state is trying to fix it. And Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley says he'd like more assistance from Washington if possible.

Though the Obama administration has promised help, Calley says it's less than it seems. Calley was the running mate of Governor Rick Snyder, who has faced demands to resign. Calley says the state is pushing forward with a fix. Corrosive water released lead from Flint water pipes, and a chemical treatment could, over time, lock that lead back in.

BRIAN CALLEY: The water mains themselves have been used for years, and like a lot of cities, many of those mains are made out of metal with lead in it. And so the phosphate coating on the inside of those pipes, that's what protects people from the lead. And that's why it builds back up over time. But keep in mind, the water delivery system, you have a few different things - you have the source of the water. There's the delivery system through the city but then also service lines into houses, plumbing in houses and fixtures in houses. And so fixing the water system is only part of the question if we're really serious about eradicating lead from people's water, whether it comes from the faucet in their kitchen or the water delivery system itself.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, is President Obama's administration helping?

CALLEY: The Obama administration had issued an emergency declaration. We have people on the ground from FEMA that are helping to coordinate things and some expertise they are bringing to bear. With respect to the infrastructure itself, there was a pretty big misunderstanding that the federal government was sending $80 million, and when we really dug into that, what we found was that it's not really a grant for the city of Flint. What it is, is the ability for them to borrow money, and from what we can tell, it looks like $17 million is about as much as we would be allowed to send to Flint. So we're working with them on - can we get some flexibility in that? Can we get the money that has fewer strings attached?

INSKEEP: Well, the state of Michigan has been quite ferociously criticized here, Lieutenant Governor. Are you saying that the federal government now is falling down on the job of helping you fix the problem?

CALLEY: The state of Michigan definitely made big mistakes - never, ever should have happened. Clearly, the EPA, in the testing process, made mistakes too. And of course, at the local level, there were big problems there. This is a series or a system of failures. My attitude is not that anything is the federal government's responsibility, but we do want for the people of Flint to find as many sources of help as we possibly can.

INSKEEP: Granting that it's a complicated story, that not all the facts are in, do you feel like something criminal happened here?

CALLEY: Well, I'll leave it to the lawyers and the investigators on the use of that word. The word I would use is something horrible has happened here, and our best direction forward is to fix the problem.

INSKEEP: Whether it's criminal or not, do you want people to be held accountable for this?

CALLEY: People are being held accountable. When you look at the leadership within the Department of Environmental Quality, there was the resignation at the top and also the spokesperson that was very dismissive with the EPA that knew of problems, apparently last February. There's a resignation there as well. And within the city of Flint, there's been an election since then. So when you look across the board, accountability is happening. There's a process for it.

INSKEEP: What about Governor Snyder?

CALLEY: Governor Snyder is somebody who's absolutely dedicated to solving this problem. And I do not believe he will rest until we get to a point where the city has both safe and clean drinking water and robust long-term systems in place in order to deal with any potential ramifications of the problems of the past.

INSKEEP: Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley of Michigan, thanks very much.

CALLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.