Howes: Truth is biggest casualty in Flint debacle

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

For three years, the truth took a holiday in Flint.

State and federal officials calmly exchanged thousands of emails, documents obtained by The Detroit News show, citing arcane rules that ensured the city of 100,000 could be forced to wait years for its noxious water problem to be rectified. They haggled over process and turf, shirked responsibility and dismissed increasingly dire concerns of frustrated residents contending with tainted brown water flowing from their taps.

More than a year before Gov. Rick Snyder in January publicly confirmed an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint and surrounding Genesee County, officials from the then-separate state departments of community health and health and human services debated a “current hypothesis” that “the source of the outbreak may be the Flint municipal water.”

More than six months later, on March 26, 2015, officials in the EPA’s Cincinnati Office of Research and Development discussed the connection, if any, between lead in Flint’s water and an apparent outbreak of Legionnaires’. They also learned the state of Michigan “is currently figuring out a communication-with-the-public plan” to tell the public about the scourge blamed for killing nine and sickening 87 people. They waited until last month to communicate.

On verge of Flint Legionnaires' alert, state stayed mum

Urgency? Not much, but for the voices of a Virginia Tech professor, a Flint pediatrician and a Chicago-based Environmental Protection Agency manager, Miguel Del Toral. He was subsequently muzzled for saying and doing too much to implicate his agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Flint Water Department in an epic case of lead-contaminated water linked to a Legionnaires’ outbreak.

The Flint Water Crisis is mendacity run amok, a bureaucratic mess of butt-covering, blame-shifting and untruthfulness that does little to help the residents of Flint or their city’s tarnished image. Nor does it repair broken trust in government at all levels, or move to replace a municipal infrastructure battered by neglect and mismanagement.

“Just a heads up … EPA Region V is really delving into the Flint lead issue,” Michael Prysby, district engineer in the MDEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, writes in a May 2015 email reviewed by The News. “Only thing is … there isn’t an issue … yet.”

Not true. More than two months earlier, the EPA’s Michigan program manager, Jennifer Crooks, shoots an email to Prysby and three others with “HIGH LEAD: FLINT water testing results” in the subject line. “The purpose of my email is to alert you to the high lead levels reported to a citizen yesterday by Flint,” she writes in February of last year. “WOW!!! Did he find lead! 104” parts per billion — seven times the acceptable level.

These Keystone Kops masquerading as serious government officials would be entertaining if the stakes weren’t so high, so human and so avoidable. Largely left out are the people in Michigan’s second largest minority-majority city whose taxes pay the salaries of the bureaucrats, the folks forced to live with the consequences of decisions made — or not — by others.

Patrick Cook, an engineer in the MDEQ’s Community Drinking Water Unit, confirms in April 2015 that “Flint is currently not practicing corrosion control treatment” at its water plant, evidence of a literal reading of the federal Lead and Copper Rule implicated in Flint’s lead-contaminated water.

Two separate EPA officials, Crooks and Del Toral, two months earlier tell state officials Flint “must” have “Optimal Corrosion Control Treatment” coursing through its service lines to prevent lead from leaching into the city’s water supply. It didn’t.

Says Cook again: “If it is determined that Flint has to install corrosion control treatment, the rule allows up to two years to complete a study and an additional two years to install the treatment unless we set a shorter time,” meaning that making things right for Flint potentially would have been a five-year process under the MDEQ’s reading of the federal rule.

The EPA’s Crooks advises colleagues at the MDEQ how to plausibly deny receiving a critical Del Toral report on “High Lead Levels In Flint”: “So if the Legislature or whoever might say you all were CC’d, you can truthfully respond that it was the EPA’s request that the report not be sent to the CC’s. Consequently, you all never received the report from Miguel.”

Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards says “the state of Michigan has been breaking federal law since April 2014, triggering a massive lead-in-water problem in Flint that they are covering up to this present day. The cover-up includes the repeated claim (not once retracted) that Flint has always met the provisions of the Lead and Copper Rule....”

But it didn’t. To read the documents is to be repeatedly reminded of a disconnect between the public and the people allegedly working in their name, between the rhetoric of safeguarding public health and actually doing it, between bureaucrats guarding their turf and defending their decisions.

More, this national embarrassment could have been avoided — if MDEQ and Flint officials had understood the fragility of the city’s aging water pipes, followed federal rules and used “corrosion controls” to treat water drawn from Flint River; if a series of emergency managers better grasped the complexity associated with making the switch; if EMs appointed by the governor in Flint and Detroit could have crafted an agreement to continue drawing water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Except powerful and politically connected interests in Flint and Genesee County saw opportunity in an EM’s decision to sever the city’s water ties with Detroit after nearly 50 years. They could reap the political reward of separating from Detroit and gain a critical partner, the city of Flint, in the Karegnondi Water Authority.

They got what they want — which is more than can be said for the people of Flint.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.