FLINT, Mich/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Michigan Governor Rick Snyder on Friday suspended two state workers in connection with water testing failures in the Flint contamination crisis and the state restored some powers to Mayor Karen Weaver.
Snyder, who NBC news reported has hired a crisis PR firm, suspended two Michigan Department of Environmental Quality workers in an increasing national furor over elevated lead readings in tap water and the blood of some children.
Snyder apologized this week to Flint residents for the state’s failures. Reports have pointed to errors at the city, state and federal level, but the bulk of the blame has been put on the DEQ, a state agency whose director resigned at the end of last year over Flint’s water issues.
“Some DEQ actions lacked common sense and that resulted in this terrible tragedy in Flint,” Snyder said in a statement.
Shortly before Snyder’s announcement, the Michigan Treasurer said Mayor Weaver who was elected in November to lead the city that is in receivership, can now hire and fire the city administrator and department heads.
Weaver met on Tuesday with President Barack Obama over the water contamination crisis gripping her city. A state-appointed board on Friday unanimously recommended that some powers be returned to the Flint mayor as the financially strapped city transitions to local control from the state control that once included an emergency manager.
Flint’s lead contamination problem came after a 2014 switch in water supplies to save money.
“I recognize, and we recognize, that we have a lot of work we have to do, I believe this is a step forward and I appreciate it,” Weaver told the board via a conference call.
The suspensions came one day after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said a top regional official would resign because of the crisis.
A succession of Flint emergency managers appointed by Snyder to try to solve the city’s fiscal woes have come under criticism. Their cost-cutting measures exposed Flint to a local water supply that was more corrosive than the previous water supply and caused more lead to leach from aging water pipes.
Snyder, who has rejected calls to resign, blamed the water crisis on bureaucracy, citing a cultural problem with civil servants more focused on technicalities than common sense.
“You have a handful of ... ‘experts’ that were career civil service people that made terrible decisions... and we have to live with the consequences with that. They work for me so I accept that responsibility and we’re going to fix this problem,” he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program on Friday.
Residents complained about the water within weeks of the change in supplies, but officials did not take action until October 2015 after tests showed some tap water and children with elevated levels of lead, a neurotoxin that causes brain damage and other health issues.
The ordeal has raised questions about the effect of inequality. Flint, a poorer, majority African-American city of 100,000 is about an hour north of Detroit.
Asked if the public health crisis was a case of so-called environmental racism, Snyder said “absolutely not,” adding that officials have distributed bottled water and filters.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and David Bailey in Minneapolis; Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Alistair Bell, Bernard Orr