Hillary and Bernie debate

Delayed action over lead-contaminated water in Flint, Mich., has hit the national level and now has woven its way into the 2016 presidential debate.

On Sunday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) vied to be the most “outraged” by what is happening in the city where residents unknowingly drank tap water contaminated with lead for a year and a half.

“And I think every single American should be outraged, where the population which is poor in many ways and majority African American has been drinking and bathing in lead contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn't really care,” Clinton told NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt at the end of the fourth primary debate among Democratic candidates.

Clinton accused Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) of stonewalling requests for help, saying “I'll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would've been action.”

In response, Snyder told the Detroit Free Press Monday that Clinton and Oscar-winning documentary maker Michael Moore, who also is a former Flint resident, are “politicizing” the water crisis for personal gain.

Flint’s population was estimated to be around 102,400 people in 2014 of which 56.6 percent were black and 37.4 percent were white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which also reports that 41 percent of the population was living below the poverty line between 2009 and 2013.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the runner-up candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, echoed Clinton’s remarks, but sought Snyder’s resignation.

“Secretary Clinton was right and what I did which I think is also right, is demanded the resignation of governor. A man who acts that irresponsibly should not stay in power,” added Sanders when asked for his response.

Their comments came a day after President Barack Obama responded Jan. 16 to Snyder’s request for help and cleared the way for federal aid by signing an order declaring a state of emergency in Michigan.

The order authorizes Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts that involves providing water filters, water, water test kits, and other items for up to 90 days.

Obama also plans to meet with the newly elected Flint Mayor Karen Weaver who is in town for the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting.

Now the Republican candidates are weighing in. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) demurred when asked to comment on Clinton’s remarks. “That's not an issue that right now we've been focused on for me to give you a deeply detailed answer on what the right approach should be, other than to tell you that in general I believe the federal government's role in some of these things (is) largely limited unless it involves a federal jurisdictional issue,” Rubio told news reporters today at a campaign stop in Coralville, Iowa.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump also declined to comment further except to say that “it's a shame what's happening in Flint.”

Water problems began surfacing in Flint after a study from Hurley Children's Hospital in September showed elevated lead levels in Flint children. Lead enters drinking water primarily through corrosion of plumbing materials, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Flint’s tap water was contaminated by corrosion of lead service lines by water taken from the nearby Flint River. The state in April 2014 made the city switch its water source to the nearby Flint River to save an estimated $5 million annually, but without ensuring the new water supply was protected against corrosion.   

The city’s water supplies were switched back to Lake Huron in October, but the extent to which the aged lead pipes suffered corrosion remains unclear. Disgruntled residents have sued the state for neglect, while calling for Snyder’s resignation (See C-SPAN Washington Journal interview with Amena Saiyid on the lead contamination issue).

See Bloomberg BNA’s ongoing coverage of the Flint water contamination crisis.

By Amena H. Saiyid,