Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson on Tuesday became the first GOP presidential candidate to speak out on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, blaming local leadership and federal authorities for failing to address the high levels of lead that have left the city's tap water largely unusable.
"Unfortunately, the leaders of Flint have failed to place the well-being of their residents as a top priority," said Carson, a Michigan native, in a statement to The Huffington Post. "The people deserve better from their local elected officials, but the federal bureaucracy is not innocent in this as well. Reports show that the Environmental Protection Agency knew well-beforehand about the lack of corrosion controls in the city’s water supply, but was either unwilling or unable to address the issue."
The EPA was closely involved in last year's government response to the water crisis, which had been caused by switching the city's water source to the Flint River while Flint was under the control of an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R). In December, Snyder appointed a task force to investigate the crisis, which determined the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was mostly to blame for the city's poisonous water, prompting the quick resignations of several officials.
But Carson didn't mention the Snyder administration or other state leaders, and claimed the current situation in Flint is proof of the broader ineffectiveness of government regulations.
"This is yet another sad demonstration that, even in the face of a clear public health crisis, our regulations aren’t effective in protecting our citizens," he said. "Our government leaders must place 'We the People' first and foremost in every decision they make. That’s why I remain committed to real, meaningful regulatory reform. The residents of Flint have sadly borne the burden of this government failure, and will continue to do so for years to come. They deserve better -- from both their local and federal officials."
The number of Flint children with elevated blood lead levels doubled after the water switch, prompting the Snyder administration to admit its mistakes and switch the water back.
Carson cited his medical background in his statement, saying that he was "all too familiar with the tragic and debilitating effects of lead poisoning," which can cause abdominal pain, hearing loss and cognitive dysfunction, as well as stunted growth and brain damage in children. He went on to thank the National Guard for its service during the current state of emergency, and offered "thoughts and prayers" to those affected by the crisis.
Flint's toxic water has become a presidential campaign issue over the last week, with Democratic candidates putting it front and center at their most recent debate on Sunday. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Synder had "acted as though he didn't really care" about Flint's poor, largely black population. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has made calls for the governor's resignation, which he reiterated during the debate.
Republican candidates have, meanwhile, had very little to say about the lead poisoning in Flint. At a campaign stop on Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) responded to a question about the city's water crisis by saying he hadn't been "fully briefed" on the issue. Front-runner Donald Trump called the situation a "shame," but declined to elaborate. HuffPost has reached out to the rest of the GOP field for comment, but Carson's campaign is the only that has responded so far.
As for the EPA, the agency knew Michigan wasn't following federal protocols to reduce the corrosiveness of Flint's water, but wasn't successful in prodding the state to take action.
"Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the state of Michigan was responsible for implementing the regulations to protect their residents’ drinking water," EPA spokeswoman Monica Lee said in an email. "While EPA worked within the framework of the law to repeatedly and urgently communicate the steps the state needed to take to properly treat its water, those necessary actions were not taken as quickly as they should have been."
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