LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A cash-strapped Michigan city that broke away from Detroit's water system to save money last year is now getting at least $1 million from the state for home water filters amid complaints that its new system, which taps a local river, is linked to increased lead levels in children's blood.
Gov. Rick Snyder announced the funds for Flint on Friday, a day after local health officials declared a public emergency following studies that showed the elevated blood lead levels. Snyder also said water at local schools would be immediately tested.
Questions about Flint's water supply started after the city began using the Flint River in an effort to save about $4 million annually. The temporary decision was made last year while a state emergency manager was shepherding Flint through a financial crisis.
But residents soon began complaining about the water's smell and taste, and some reported rashes, hair loss and other health concerns. A General Motors plant stopped using the water because it was causing excessive rust. Local schools have urged students to avoid fountains.
The city's water is treated and the state says it meets federal safety guidelines, but tests have found that the water is too corrosive and is releasing lead from old plumbing in and near thousands of homes. Doctors last week reported higher levels of lead in local children's blood samples.
Exposure to lead can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in young children.
"It appears from the data that there are some serious issues and concerns with what happens when that water reaches the home," Snyder said during a conference call Friday.
The governor did not rule out possibly reconnecting Flint to Detroit's regional water system, saying it is an "active topic." The city planned to use the river pending the completion of a separate regional pipeline in 2016, which Snyder wants to expedite.
He announced expanded health exposure testing of homes, continued free water testing in households, quicker steps to ensure that water from the Flint River is effectively treated and a desire for long-term replacement of lead service lines.
"We understand many have lost confidence in the drinking water. We need to build that back. We need to do more," Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said during a news conference in Flint.
State officials are still investigating, but among the differences in how the cities treat their water is that the Detroit system, which taps Lake Huron, adds a corrosion control agent called orthophosphate to prevent lead in pipes getting into the water, said Brad Wurfel, spokesman for the environmental regulatory agency.
Flint had not been doing that, but will start under the guidelines announced Friday. The state said a year of testing showed that the city system exceeded the levels at which corrosion controls must be used. Wurfel said orthophosphate gathers on pipes' interior walls and forms a layer that reduces the water's exposure to lead.
Susan Hedman, regional head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago, said the new measures — including corrosion control — were "important steps to protect public health" and would reduce lead levels in the city's water.
Some Flint residents were suspicious of the plan.
Bob Mabbitt, 39, said distributing filters is a "Band-Aid" fix because "not everybody's going to get a filter who really needs one."
"They're basically experimenting on the population of Flint while they figure this out," he said.
Arthur Woodson, 48, said the river water is "corrosive, automatically. They already knew that. ... Why can't we just go to our back-up resource, which is clean Detroit water?"
The Flint River's water quality, like many rivers in southern Michigan, was damaged before a regulatory crackdown on direct industrial and municipal discharges in the 1970s, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said in a 2001 report. Since then, degradation of the watershed has continued from runoff from farms, parking lots, septic systems and other sources.
Still, the Flint water system has been tested for about 90 contaminants — including lead — and complies with federal drinking water standards, Wurfel said.
In September, Virginia Tech researchers released a report saying Flint's water was creating a health threat in old homes that have lead pipes or pipes fused with lead solder. Flint officials said they know which homes have risky pipes but that the information is on about 45,000 index cards and difficult to retrieve.
State health officials on Friday confirmed the findings and said there were elevated levels of lead in blood in two local ZIP codes.
The Genesee County Health Department declared a public health emergency on Thursday. A coalition of residents and national groups also petitioned the EPA to order the state to reconnect Flint to Detroit water.
The city is now telling residents to use only cold water for drinking, cooking and making baby formula, and recommending they use the certified filters. The General Motors Foundation, the local United Way and others have given at least $105,000 to buy filters for 5,000 residents.
John Flesher reported from Traverse City. Associated Press writers Mike Householder in Flint and Corey Williams in Detroit also contributed to this report.