President Barack Obama made a long-awaited visit to Flint, Michigan, Wednesday, seeking to bring unity to a crisis over lead-contaminated water that has left residents furious with local, state and federal leaders — and taking sips of filtered water to show it is safe to drink.
Inspired to visit by a letter from an 8-year-old Flint girl, Obama told an audience of about 1,000 that he came to listen to their concerns about a water-contamination crisis.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said at Flint Northwestern High School. “To tell you directly that I see you, and I hear you.”
He added, “I also came here to tell you that I’ve got your back. That we’re paying attention.”
The city of nearly 100,000 was exposed to high levels of lead after Flint switched from Detroit water to the Flint River in a money-saving move.
The federal and state government are spending millions to try and fix the problem and to offer health care to those affected. A city official and two state environmental officials have been indicted in the water crisis, and other investigations are ongoing.
Lead can cause developmental problems in children and brain damage and memory loss in adults.
Obama did not announce much new policy during his day-long visit, but on two occasions he sipped from a glass of filtered water to show it is safe to drink for most people.
“Filtered water is safe, and it works,” he said at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.
He acknowledged that there was a “lot of suspicion” about whether the water was drinkable. But he added, “Working with the state and the city, filters are now available for everyone in the city.”
Obama said anyone over 6 years old and women who are not pregnant can consume filtered water and promised, “The scientists who work for me — if they tell me something which I’m saying in front of all of those cameras, turns out to be wrong — that person will not have a job.”
Obama portrayed Flint’s lead-pollution crisis as the result of a “corrosive attitude” in American politics that derides government regulation and feeds neglect of poor communities.
“It’s a mindset that says environmental rules designed to keep your water clean or your air clean are options, or not that important, or will unnecessarily burden businesses or taxpayers,” Obama said.
But he also warned that it would take a long time for Flint to rebuild its water system, including a massive pipe-replacement program. He urged residents to install filters in the meantime. And he encouraged the city not to fall into despair, or believe that Flint’s children were now doomed to lifelong struggle.
“Don’t lose hope,” Obama said.