Howes: Flint task force slams EM law, asks new question

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The hammering of Gov. Rick Snyder continues in the Flint water crisis, this time at the hands of a task force appointed by him but determined to demonstrate its independence.

It shows. The five-person panel says the state’s controversial Emergency Manager Law, an iteration refined twice by Snyder and fellow Republicans to address “severe financial distress” in places like Flint, should be reviewed. The law removes checks and balances that could have scrutinized or stopped bad decisions made by four separate EMs in Flint.

It says the state’s bungling in Flint, which is Michigan’s second-largest minority-majority city, amounts to “environmental injustice” in a place beset with poverty and slumping property values — a bipartisan indictment, with scant direct evidence, that echoes liberal charges against Snyder, his administration and the state’s Republican leadership in connection with the water crisis.

The state — and, by obvious extension, the governor — shoulders the bulk of the responsibility for the fiasco that tainted the city’s drinking water with lead and for too long ignored likely connections to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 10 people and sickened 87.

The state’s Department of Environmental Quality failed to enforce safe drinking water regulations, the Department of Health and Human Services failed to ensure public safety, and a succession of four state-appointed emergency managers botched a series of decisions that could not be vetted by elected officials in Flint.

The panel retraces the recurring narrative of miscommunication, bureaucratic incompetence and galling indifference even as it flashes a toxic combination of cultural rot inside state departments and unmistakable politicking inside Flint and Genesee County government that impacted Flint residents the most.

But what’s not said in the Flint Water Advisory Task Force’s final report, released Wednesday, raises more questions about the underlying forces animating the rush to end once-and-for-all Flint’s 50-year connection to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

We know bureaucrats inside the MDEQ and MDHHS slow-walked responses to complaints of foul, brown water after Flint switched its source in mid-2013; we know the federal Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns behind the scenes and then declined to publicly air them; we know members of the governor’s inner circle raised questions about Flint water, traces of lead in it and a connection to Legionnaires’ outbreak.

Less clear are the politics surrounding the decision to award a sole-source contract in June 2013 to a local engineering firm — Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc., or LAN — to ready the city’s water treatment plant for its planned switch to Flint River water. The task force says the firm did not respond to its written questions.

In mid-April 2014, Mike Glasgow, then in the city’s public works department, expresses concern that Flint’s water treatment plant staff is not prepared to begin drawing water from the Flint River and complains about “apparent political pressure” to stick to the schedule and make the switch.

Pressure from whom? Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, whose tenure coincided with the disastrous switch? Then-Mayor Dayne Walling, who two months later would be given oversight of the city’s Department of Public Works under Order 15 signed by Earley on June 20?

Or officials at the Karegnondi Water Authority, who hired LAN to design a 66-inch water transmission line that the firm touts on its website? KWA’s financial model for the new entity needs Flint and its nearly 100,000 residents to be paying members of the KWA, lest the dream of water independence from Detroit be dashed by financial reality.

“Flint Public Works personnel were ill-prepared to assume responsibility for full-time operation of the Flint” water treatment plant “and distribution,” the task force concluded. The plant “and installed treatment technologies were not adequate to produce safe, clean drinking water at start-up of full-time operations.”

The task force recommends that state authorities “conduct an investigative review of the development and approach of the Karegnondi Water Authority and the city of Flint’s commitments to KWA water purchases” — a vaguely suspicious suggestion echoed publicly Wednesday by Ken Sikkema, a task force member and former majority leader of the state Senate.

Despite the state and congressional hearings, task force reports and the evidence found in more than 43,000 pages of state documents, this thing is far from over. State Attorney General Bill Schuette, the Justice Department and the FBI continue investigations that could culminate in both civil and criminal charges; separate civil litigation is underway.

A cornerstone of the governor’s tenure — the effective use of the state’s emergency manager law, chiefly in the restructuring of Detroit — is withering under scrutiny in Flint. Without the checks and counsel provided by such professional advisers as EM Kevyn Orr used in Detroit, an EM appointed by the governor is more likely to make bad calls akin to those handed down in Flint.

“Though it may be technically true that all levels of government failed,” the task force said, “the state’s responsibilities should not be deflected. The causes of the crisis lie primarily at the feet of the state by virtue of its agencies’ failures and its appointed emergency managers’ misjudgments.”

Cold and hard, that, and true.

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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.