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At water quality town hall, calls for a deeper look into Flint and beyond

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Flint’s ongoing water crisis, and the wider concerns it’s sparked about water quality throughout the state, was the subject of a town hall meeting in Royal Oak this weekend.

Speakers included Sue McCormick, head of the state’s new largest water supplier, southeast Michigan’s Great Lakes Water Authority; Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician who helped bring the city’s lead-in-water crisis to light; and Jim Nash, Oakland County’s water resources commissioner.

A group of State House Democrats organized the town hall, and used it to press for a package of bills dealing with water quality and affordability issues. Those bills have some bipartisan support.

Royal Oak State Representative Jim Townsend also pressed for the legislature to “get to the bottom” of what happened in Flint.

Townsend said he’s working with the new Levin Center at the Wayne State University Law School,  trying to convince House Speaker Kevin Cotter to “get the Levin Center to come up and show us how to do a bipartisan investigation.”

“I really think that’s something we must do,” Townsend said. “And if it leads in a direction that says some people need to go to jail, then they need to go to jail.”

Nash called the Flint crisis particularly puzzling. He said that historically, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has a reputation for being stringent when it comes to water quality enforcement.

“And that’s what makes it so unusual to me, that they [Flint] were allowed to do things that I can’t imagine any community in this county being allowed to do,” Nash said.

Nash and McCormick said that overall, southeast Michigan has high-quality drinking water, though aging infrastructure is a looming question mark in the future.

Nash said increased storm water runoff and growing toxic algal blooms, especially in Lake Erie, are also major concerns. “We get our water from the lakes, so it’s important that we make sure we’re not letting things into the rivers that we shouldn’t,” he said.

But Hanna-Attisha said the Flint crisis has shown that lead in water is a more widespread concern than most regulators had believed or acknowledged.  “We can’t dismiss it as much as we’ve dismissed it in the past,” she said.

In the meantime, Hanna-Attisha had a message for people looking to help out in Flint: don’t send bottled water.

“We have enough water in Flint. So please don’t do water drives, don’t donate water,” Hanna-Attisha said. “We can’t even store or process the water. It’s being stored at Selfridge Air Force Base now.”

Instead, Hanna-Attisha says people can donate time or money to the Flint Child Health and Development Fund, or other efforts aimed at counteracting the long-term effects of lead exposure.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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