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Calls To Resign Overshadow Michigan Governor's State Address


Michigan's governor faces calls to resign. That's part of the response to lead contamination in the city of Flint. Governor Rick Snyder himself has called the crisis a disaster, and that is the situation as Snyder prepares to deliver a State of the State address today. Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta covers the governor. He's on the line. Good morning.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Would you remind us what happened in Flint and which part of it the governor considers a disaster?

PLUTA: Flint is a Michigan community that was placed under what's called emergency management. A state-appointed manager was in charge when the decision was made that Flint was going to stop using water from the city of Detroit system, where it was buying it and it was considered too expensive, and start drawing water from the Flint River at least on an interim basis. And it turned out that the water was very corrosive, so corrosive in fact that General Motors had a car plant nearby and wouldn't use it. And what that did was it caused lead in some water pipes leading into homes to leach into the water. And now we have a lot of kids in Flint who have elevated lead levels, and the fear is all the attendant health problems that go along with it.

INSKEEP: And you're giving us an idea here why it is that people would blame the governor - because the state was in charge of the city, because it faced a fiscal crisis, as some cities in Michigan have, and it was seen as a money-saving measure that the water supply was shifted.

PLUTA: Exactly. The complaint is that it was putting bean counting ahead of the public health, while the city of Flint was, basically, under state control.

INSKEEP: And so what specific criticisms of Snyder's role are there?

PLUTA: Well, there're two. One is the one that it happened in the first place. And then as it turned out, state environmental regulators didn't make sure that the proper protections were in place - that the water was treated properly once they started drawing it from the city of Flint and then denied that there was a problem. And this went on for months and months and months before anyone at the state level acknowledged that it was real. In the meantime, local activists, a pediatrician in Flint and some researchers from out-of-state came in and kept saying, look there's a problem, and finally the state had to acknowledge that it was true.

INSKEEP: This has become part of the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton framed this as a racial issue because Flint is a majority-black city. What are people saying in Michigan about that element of this?

PLUTA: Well, one of the criticisms of the emergency management law that we were talking about - the one that allows the state to step in and essentially take over a city that is struggling financially. It famously happened in Detroit and wound up with the bankruptcy - is that the communities that are taken over, the cities and the school districts, are almost always primarily minority communities. That's certainly something that people talk about when it comes to this.

INSKEEP: Has Governor Snyder had a good opportunity to defend himself?

PLUTA: Governor Snyder was very late to defend himself. And for the longest time, basically, his administration denied that there was a problem at all, sometimes almost fiercely denied that there was a problem. Now he is starting to acknowledge culpability. Although in an interview with the National Journal, he kind of dumped it on environmental officials saying that they hadn't gotten the change memo - those are his words - when it comes to how public agencies are supposed to operate.

INSKEEP: That's Rick Pluta of Michigan Public Radio. Thanks very much.

PLUTA: A pleasure, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.