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Obama Visits Flint, Mich., To Address Toxic Water Crisis


In Flint, Mich., today, President Obama warned it could take more than two years to replace the city's aging and corroded water pipes. In the meantime, he urged parents to have their children tested for lead poisoning. He also tried to reassure them that the lead contamination in the drinking water was being addressed.


BARACK OBAMA: Can I get some water?


SIEGEL: Obama took a sip of filtered tap water before about a thousand residents at a local high school. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk about the president's visit to Flint. Scott, this was Obama's first trip to Flint since the water crisis. What did he hope to accomplish?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Robert, this was a largely symbolic visit. The president wanted to show the people of Flint their government hasn't forgotten them, even though their water problems are not in the headlines every day anymore. Obama got an update about federal efforts to respond to the problems - the millions of gallons of bottled water and water filters that FEMA's handed out, the expansion of health care and a head start in the city. He also said, though, that the drinking water problems in Flint are just a symptom of larger economic problems and of a mindset that disparages government and public goods, especially in communities like Flint that are poor and lack political power.


OBAMA: That attitude is as corrosive to our democracy as the stuff that resulted in lead in your water because what happens is it leads to systemic neglect. It leads to carelessness and callousness.

HORSLEY: Obama said what happened in Flint should never have happened. And he admitted government officials at every level had not been attentive to the problems there. He also said he hopes some good might come from this if it highlights a need for greater investment in public works.

SIEGEL: In the meantime, how are people in Flint coping with the water problem?

HORSLEY: Well, you heard the president there take a sip of filtered water. Last month, the EPA and state officials said filtered water is safe for most people to drink, though they're still recommending young children and pregnant women stick with bottled water. Even so, there's a great deal of suspicion. You know, back in March, there was an 8-year-old girl, Mari Copeny, who wrote to the president about the problems she and her family have been having. And Mari's mother, Lulu Brezzell, told Here & Now it's really a struggle because the stuff coming out of their taps still doesn't smell right.


LULU BREZZELL: It's absolutely exhausting. You have to remind your kids not to drink the water, not to turn on the faucet, not to wash your hands for too long because they end up with rashes that are similar to chemical burns. So we're using bottled water for everything.

HORSLEY: And part of the problem is, if people are not running their taps, that contaminated water just sits there, so the city's now encouraging residents to let their taps run five minutes each day, a program they're calling Flush for Flint. And President Obama made a push for that today.

SIEGEL: Scott, the president was joined in Flint by Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. How was he received?

HORSLEY: Unlike President Obama, who got a standing ovation, Snyder got a round of boos when he spoke at Northwestern High School. He told the audience their he understands that they're angry and frustrated. His own blue-ribbon commission found the state government was largely to blame for Flint's water problems. Snyder apologized for that and says he wants to work hard to fix it. He also echoed what the president said about trying to deal with both the short-term water crisis, but also the longer-term economic challenges facing Flint.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.

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