Michigan’s top environmental official resigned Tuesday after an independent task force delivered its initial findings on the Flint water contamination crisis — conclusions that also prompted an apology from Gov. Rick Snyder.
Dan Wyant, director of the Department of Environmental Quality since 2011, tendered his resignation Tuesday, marking the second agency shakeup in just over two months related to Flint’s lead-tainted drinking water problems. The industrial city has been plagued by lead issues since an April 2014 switch to the Flint River as its water source.
A Snyder-appointed task force investigating the long-running situation announced it found Tuesday the DEQ “primarily responsible for failing to ensure safe drinking water in Flint.” Snyder accepted the initial findings and Wyant’s resignation — “I’ve determined that it’s appropriate to accept it, he said — and then issued an apology.
“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,” Snyder said in a press release. “And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience, because Flint is not the only city that has an aging infrastructure.”
“I know many Flint citizens are angry and want more than an apology. That’s why I’m taking the actions today to ensure a culture of openness and trust.”
A Flint Water Advisory Task Force co-chair blamed the DEQ’s passive culture for Flint’s water ills.
“Flint residents were exposed to toxic levels of lead in their water primarily due to a regulatory culture of passive technical compliance that is simply insufficient to the task of public protection,” wrote Ken Sikkema, a former state senator. “We also believe that the dismissive and disrespectful tone of much of the MDEQ’s response to public concerns is unacceptable.”
The water switch, made while Flint was under the leadership of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager, immediately led to resident complaints about the smell, taste and discoloration of their drinking water. Eventually, researchers found a link between the switch and a rise in lead poisoning among city children.
Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and, at high levels, may lead to seizures, coma and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wyant could not be reached for comment Tuesday. In October, Wyant admitted the DEQ erred in its application of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, designed to ensure safe drinking water for residents.
Late on Tuesday, DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel resigned as well.
Flint was allowed to begin drawing its drinking water from the river without any corrosion controls in place to prevent lead in old plumbing connections from leaching. The task force said the DEQ failed in the regulatory handling of Flint’s water problems, the “substance and tone” in the department’s response as well as its “interpretation of the Lead and Copper Rule.”
State Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, criticized the DEQ culture Tuesday, saying workers were more concerned with following rules than informing the public about potential problems.
“When you have lead in the water, I don’t care if you follow the rules or not: You need to notify the public first,” Ananich said.
Critics have put increasing pressure on Snyder’s administration to answer for the Flint water decisions in the last two years. Among the harshest critics is Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher whose water sampling at Flint homes and public record requests have helped keep the spotlight on the state government’s actions.
But Edwards said Wyant should not be the one on the chopping block.
“I’m glad that someone is sorry and someone is being held accountable,” Edwards said. “But Dan Wyant would not be at the top of my list — or even on the list. I feel strongly he was misled by his staff at every point, and he was put in publicly embarrassing situations by the staff’s misinformation.”
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Hurley Medical Center pediatrician who uncovered lead exposure in city children following the switch, echoed Edwards by saying DEQ staffers’ mistakes led to Flint’s problems.
“(Wyant) wasn’t directly involved,” she said. “There are other people, particularly in (the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance), that need to take some responsibility. ... (Wyant) was a nice person being fed bad information.”
In 2013, Flint agreed to create a new regional water authority in an attempt to save money. The city had tried to negotiate lower rates with former provider Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for years, to little avail.
But the Karegondi Water Authority will not be completed until some time next year. In the interim, Flint looked to its river to provide drinking water. That water turned out to be far more corrosive than the Lake Huron water used by the Detroit system.
With pressure mounting from troublesome water samples and health studies, Flint reconnected to the Detroit system in October.
Snyder previously was elusive in acknowledging the extent of the state’s responsibility for the lead contamination of the city’s water when it switched to the more corrosive Flint River in 2014, saying he was awaiting the task force report. On Tuesday, the governor was more contrite.
“We’ve already allocated $10 million to test the water, distribute water filters, and help in other ways,” Snyder said. “Last week, I called Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, and we’re going to meet soon to discuss other ways the state can offer assistance.”