Years before a lead-poisoning crisis made Flint an unenviable center of national attention, there were warning signs about the state agency charged with keeping drinking water safe.

Among them: Federal government concerns about the ability of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to detect lead in the water supply.

In 2010, a federal audit portrayed MDEQ as a department beset by budget cuts, staff shifts and limited resources, and willing to take regulatory shortcuts in safeguarding Michigan’s water.

The agency’s Drinking Water Program had just seen its annual budget slashed to roughly $1.5 million, down $300,000 from the previous fiscal year, said the audit, conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Frequent hiring freezes have impacted Michigan for about 10 years,” the report noted. “This has made it difficult to replace positions.” Bans on contract services and a “cumbersome” employee hiring process didn’t help, either.

Funding cuts forced MDEQ’s Drinking Water Program to fill vacancies “with staff from other programs that have been cut or eliminated,” the audit said. “While this practice preserves jobs, it decreases the technical knowledge of staff and requires tremendous resources to train these staff.”

Almost as an aside, the audit suggests that “(t)raining for new staff would also be appreciated on fundamental public health issues and compliance decisions.”

It is not immediately clear whether the financial and monitoring shortcomings identified in the 2010 audit were factors in MDEQ’s much-criticized performance during the Flint water crisis, or to what degree they may have been addressed in the years since.

Melanie Brown, MDEQ’s communication director, wrote in an email after the initial publication of this article that MDEQ’s new leadership “cannot immediately speak” to issues surrounding the 2010 audit. She said MDEQ is working hard to test water in homes and school buildings and to “ensure our water sampling and testing protocols are the most effective methods as possible now and into the future.”

Technical shortcomings

The EPA audit documented technical shortcomings in everything from the monitoring of radioactive pollutants known as radionuclides and coliform bacteria in water to — notably — how effectively MDEQ followed federal regulations for tracking lead levels.

Lead in water is measured in parts per billion (ppb). Federal regulations require water utilities to certify that 90 percent of homes in a community contain 15 parts-per-billion of lead or less in drinking water. It’s a standard some critics say should be toughened, for two reasons: One, even at levels below 15 ppb, lead can pose serious health concerns, especially for young children. Second, the 90th percentile standard theoretically could allow cities to proclaim their water safe even if 10 percent of homes had lead levels higher than the 15 ppb EPA “action” standard.

The EPA audit said that MDEQ failed to meet this federal standard, noting that it “does not calculate 90th percentiles, unless one sample exceeds one-half of the [15 ppb] action level. In that case, a potential violation will be identified and staff will use [a state database] to calculate the 90th percentile.”

MDEQ’s “practice does not meet the requirements of federal regulations, since it is required that all 90th percentiles be calculated,” the audit concluded.

The audit also found MDEQ failed to submit 90th-percentile results to a federal water information system “in a timely fashion.”

In “several cases,” MDEQ also failed to make a timely report of lead readings that exceeded the federal action standards.

EPA was likewise troubled that MDEQ did not conduct the required number of water samples for lead, including during the summer months, to conserve limited agency resources.

In the case of radionuclides — radioactive substances that can be found in certain rocks and minerals and sometimes enter water supplies — the audit found there were “no labs in Michigan that are certified for radionuclide analysis, so samples are sent out of state. The labs tend to be very slow and yield widely varying results.”

Elsewhere in the audit, EPA noted that the state agency did not monitor whether water quality tests were being performed in schools or childcare centers. The agency left that task to local health departments, but had “no formalized oversight or enforcement to ensure” those reports were turned in, nor any “specific programs to address drinking water contamination in schools or childcare facilities.”

A broken system

One expert from the Virginia Tech scientific team that helped bring the Flint water crisis to public attention said she was not surprised by the audit findings.

Yanna Lambrinidou, a medical ethnographer and adjunct assistant professor in the Science and Technology Studies program at Virginia Tech, said deficiencies are common in water supply regulatory bodies across the nation.

“These are programs that are understaffed, underfunded and lacking knowledge and experience,” Lambrinidou told Bridge.

Lambrinidou, who is also a water quality expert, said that MDEQ’s budget-conscious approach to water monitoring is reflective of resource shortages in state environmental agencies across the country.

She noted that in 2013, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators found that 17 states had cut budgets for agencies regulating drinking water safety by more than a fifth, and more than two dozen had cut spending on full-time employees.

So it was in Michigan. The EPA audit, conducted during the administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, refers to “dramatic budget cuts” at MDEQ that had a “significant impact” on its water program.

“Increased regulatory requirements coupled with a decrease in available funding, have required MDEQ to prioritize program activities” and sharpen its focus on “drinking water regulations that directly affect public health,” the audit said.

Lambrinidou, who conducted research on lead contamination in drinking water in Washington D.C., exposed in a series of Washington Post articles in 2004, is scheduled to testify today in a U.S. House hearing on the Flint water crisis. She also served on a working group for the National Drinking Water Advisory Council that issued recommendations for changing how lead and copper are regulated in drinking water.

Lambrinidou said the audit’s finding that MDEQ was not following the letter of the 90th-percentile reporting requirement was troubling. “That is in violation. It says to me that they are not following the law. It says to me the system is more broken than we think.”

There’s no indication the alleged failings in this audit led directly to the Flint water crisis. But the EPA’s findings appear to foreshadow much of what was to come — the failure of state regulators to quickly identify and mitigate the threat of lead poisoning in Flint’s drinking water after the city began to draw its water in 2014 from the highly corrosive Flint River.

The audit’s warnings add to an already troubling picture of an agency that was one of several government departments at the local, state and federal level that, according to currently available records, failed to prevent lead poisoning of Flint residents.

On Dec. 29, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, the team appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to investigate the Flint debacle, concluded that “primary responsibility for what happened in Flint rests with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.”

The task force echoed some themes in the EPA audit — notably, it’s description of MDEQ as an agency where “a culture exists in which ‘technical compliance’ is considered sufficient to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan.

“This minimalist approach to regulatory and oversight responsibility is unacceptable and simply insufficient to the task of public protection. It led to MDEQ’s failure to recognize a number of indications that switching the water source in Flint would — and did — compromise both water safety and water quality.”

This “minimalist” approach remained a topic of conversation among MDEQ and EPA regulators last summer. In July emails, an EPA official cited a conversation with MDEQ regulators about “the possibility of the Michigan State Legislature looking to have just a minimal drinking water program” in the future.

A breakdown at multiple levels

By now, the timeline of what happened is familiar.

Flint, under a series of Snyder-appointed emergency managers, cut ties with the Detroit water system as a money-saving measure and in April 2014 began to draw water from the Flint River. Within weeks, residents were complaining about the water’s taste and appearance, in some cases a rusty color that could be an indication that iron along with lead were leaching from pipes into the drinking water due to the river water’s corrosive properties.

As Bridge recently chronicled in an exhaustive timeline of the Flint crisis, an EPA employee by the name of Miquel Del Toral raised concerns with MDEQ and others about lead water levels in Flint as far back as last February. Those concerns were not acted on for many months by MDEQ, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Flint water officials, Snyder’s office, or by Del Toral’s higher-ups at EPA.

Last April, two months after telling EPA that Flint had optimized corrosion control in place, MDEQ acknowledged Flint’s drinking water had no corrosion control.

The same month, Del Toral issued a memo to MDEQ stating his concern that its practice of flushing out water lines before testing for lead was skewing results downward: “I wanted to follow up on this because Flint has essentially not been using any corrosion control treatment since April 30, 2014, and they have (lead service lines). Given the very high lead levels found at one home and the pre-flushing happening in Flint, I’m worried that the whole town may have much higher lead levels than the compliance results indicated…”

Again, the conclusion of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force: “MDEQ staff instructed the City of Flint water treatment staff that corrosion control treatment was not necessary until two six-month monitoring periods had been conducted … The decision not to require corrosion control treatment, made at the direction of the MDEQ, led directly to the contamination of the Flint water system.”

In August, Virginia Tech professor and municipal water expert Marc Edwards began independent testing of Flint’s water. In September, he published results that included several samples exceeding 100 ppb and one exceeding 1,000 ppb. An earlier test found lead levels exceeding 13,000 ppb in one home.

“FLINT HAS A VERY SERIOUS LEAD IN WATER PROBLEM,” he wrote emphatically in his report.

In September, a Flint physician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and Hurley Medical Center released a study that found the percentage of Flint children and infants with above-average lead blood levels had nearly tripled among those in high-risk areas of the city.

Finally, in early October, the Snyder administration began to take action, announcing it would provide water filters to residents, test the water in Flint schools to assure it was safe and expand testing of individual homes. The city reconnected to the Detroit water system that same month and initiated corrosion control measures. Even so, safety questions remain, and it is unclear how soon Flint residents will be cleared to drink the water coming to their homes.

MDEQ’s director, Dan Wyant, and the agency’s spokesman, Brad Wurfel, who had aggressively derided questions about the water’s safety, later resigned. On Feb. 5, MDEQ’s Liane Shekter Smith was fired.

Meanwhile, EPA is conducting a “full programmatic review” of MDEQ beyond its typical annual inspection to assure the agency “maintains reliable drinking water supplies that meet all of the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

The audit is expected to take several months to complete.

Lambrinidou of Virginia Tech said the EPA audit back in 2010 should have raised alarm at both EPA and MDEQ.

“What this says to me is that this report came out six years ago and six years later people in Flint have gotten poisoned water,” Lambrinidou said. “What has happened in those six years? Who fixed what?”

Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.

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