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Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder takes responsibility for Flint’s water crisis: “I let you down"

Rick Snyder pledged to do better for the people of Flint in the future.
Rick Snyder pledged to do better for the people of Flint in the future.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

When unsafe levels of lead were found in the water in Flint, Michigan, it became a political crisis for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder as well as a public health crisis.

Tuesday night, amid harsh criticism, Snyder tried to fix the situation, devoting most of his annual State of the State address to Flint.

"I am sorry, and I will fix it," Snyder said. "No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe. Government failed you — federal, state, and local leaders — by breaking the trust you placed in us. I’m sorry most of all that I let you down."

Snyder said he'd ask the state legislature for $28 million to address the crisis, and promised to publicly release his emails on the subject from 2014 and 2015.

"We will not stop working for the people of Flint until every single person has clean water every single day," Snyder said. "No matter what."

Flint, which had long struggled economically, stopped buying water from Detroit in 2014 and switched to using water from the Flint River while a new water system was being built. The treated river water tasted and smelled bad, and residents began complaining about the quality almost immediately.

Still, it took more than a year — and an outside investigation from researchers at Virginia Tech that found elevated lead levels — for the state to admit that the water was unsafe.

Why Snyder is being blamed for the water crisis

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was among those who called for Snyder's resignation over his handling of the situation in Flint: "The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint's water," Sanders said. "He did nothing. As a result, hundreds of children were poisoned."

Although the decision to stop buying Detroit's water was made by an elected city council, Flint switched to using river water while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager with a mandate to get the city's costs down.

The state also failed to adequately test the water and to act when it learned that children in Flint had high blood lead levels. A letter from an independent state task force in December blamed the state's Department of Environmental Quality, harshly criticizing it for prioritizing "technical compliance" with the law over doing what was best for Flint's citizens.

The department "made a number of decisions that were, and continue to be, justified on the basis that federal rules 'allowed' those decisions to be made," the task force, which is still working on its final report, wrote.

Snyder said in his speech Wednesday night that he didn't know about the "scope and magnitude" of the crisis until September, after researchers from Virginia Tech conducted an independent investigation into Flint's water.

"We are fully cooperating with investigations and will hold those individuals accountable," he said. "And let me be perfectly clear to all of state government. In the future, a situation like this must come to my desk immediately. No delays. No excuses. Period."