Even with the state’s faulty interpretation of federal law, Michigan environmental officials should have moved to install corrosion controls in Flint’s water system no later than December 2014, when tests first revealed dangerous lead levels, according to the new chief of the Department of Environmental Quality.
Instead, water for Flint homes wasn’t treated with anti-corrosion agents — costing an estimated $140 a day — until the city returned to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department system 10 months later.
Keith Creagh, who took over at DEQ three weeks ago after the ouster of the previous director, told The Detroit News this week that the mistaken interpretation of EPA rules is the focus of an in-house investigation into a public health crisis that might have been avoided with more “common sense.”
“At worst, after six months, some bells and whistles should have gone off at DEQ and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to say we should have expedited treatment,” Creagh said. “We should have been more aggressive.”
Flint switched from Detroit’s system to the more corrosive Flint River water in April 2014; the city returned to Detroit water in October 2015.
Creagh said two top officials in the the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance are responsible for the disputed interpretation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule — determining two six-month periods of water testing were necessary before a decision on the use of corrosion controls could be made.
After the first round of sampling results came back to the state in December 2014, with lead above acceptable levels, he said corrosion controls should have been mandated immediately. Those results at that time showed lead at 6 parts per billion, one part above the level requiring action.
Both officials have been reassigned and kept away from Flint water issues, he said. In addition, several of their subordinates have been steered away from Flint duties. But to date, the city’s water crisis had not resulted in any terminations.
That failure to include corrosion controls was the first domino in the city’s health crisis, said a water expert.
“We can say with high confidence, that if the (corrosion controls) had been used, nearly all of the problems that have occurred — from lead to leaks to possibly Legionnaires’ disease — would not have occurred,” said Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech University, whose testing helped uncover high levels of lead in Flint’s water.
In mid-October 2015, then-DEQ Director Dan Wyant admitted the agency misinterpreted what it considers a poorly worded federal regulations on toxic metals in water. At the time, Wyant reassigned Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Chief Lianne Shekter-Smith to another job.
Creagh said Stephen Busch, the office’s Lansing and Jackson district supervisor, has also been reassigned.
Investigations are ongoing and all discipline options remain on the table, said Creagh, the former head of the state Department of Natural Resources who took over the top post at DEQ three weeks ago.
Wyant and department spokesman Brad Wurfel resigned in late December after an independent task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder blamed a “culture of passivity” in the DEQ that primarily resulted in Flint’s contaminated water crisis.
Creagh admitted common sense should have led DEQ officials to recognize the dangers inherent in Flint’s water switch.
He said wording in the Lead and Copper Rule can be vague and that the interpretation of Office of Drinking Water officials was technically correct. But even with that interpretation, he said, DEQ should have taken action in late December 2014, when results from the first six-months of water testing in Flint showed lead readings over acceptable levels.
A review of internal communications from other DEQ staffers show other employees offered similar positions on the requirements for corrosion controls in federal law.
Creagh defended the employees beneath Shekter-Smith and Busch.
“That is what people lower in the chain of command were led to believe by their program experts,” he said. “Technical expertise lies with the division chief on technical issues. As a division director, you’re supposed to have enough experience and enough sensitivity to understand the complexities of an issue.”
Several employees of the Office of Drinking Water are named as defendants in a pair of class action lawsuits announced this week that also target Snyder and the state of Michigan.
Glenn Daigger, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Michigan, said the idea of including corrosion controls in a water system as large as Flint’s is fairly rudimentary.
“That is absolutely something that should be provided,” he said.
Among the earliest and most consistent critics of the state’s actions in Flint has been the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
Communications Director Darrell Dawsey pointed to General Motors Co.’s decision in October 2014 — more than two months before DEQ’s test results came back — to stop using water from the river at its Flint Engine Operations plant.
“Common sense seems to suggest that if General Motors doesn’t want to use the water because it’s corroding the engines, then maybe someone might want to ask themselves if children should be drinking it,” Dawsey said.
For months, pressure on the Snyder administration has slowly ratcheted up as residents, elected officials and news outlets have parsed through the state government’s actions in Flint.
The city’s move to the Flint River for water came while under the control of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager and has led to questioning of whether the Flint River ever was a suitable source for drinking water.
Like Virginia Tech’s Edwards, Wayne State University Professor Shawn McElmurry said the Flint River could have worked as a water source had the state treated it properly from the outset.
“River water has been used by many municipalities as a water source,” said McElmurry, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “There’s no reason Flint River water could not have been treated properly and used safely.”