Michigan DEQ vows changes in Flint water crisis

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Michigan’s top environmental official acknowledged the state made mistakes in its handling of Flint’s long-running water crisis, and said changes would be made, including reassigning a top official responsible for the safety of drinking water.

Dan Wyant, director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, said late Sunday that staff members applied the wrong standards of the Lead and Copper Rule that governs testing and monitoring for drinking water. The result was that proper controls regarding corrosion were not put in place when the city began drawing its water from the Flint River in spring 2014.

“Our actions reflected inexperience, and our public response to criticism was the wrong tone early in this conversation,” Wyant said. “But the best we can do with the situation going forward is represented in our present course. ... We will learn from this. We will make necessary changes to see to it that our program becomes a national leader in (lead) protection.”

The changes will include the reassignment of Liane Shekter Smith, chief of DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance. Gov. Rick Snyder will also introduce an independent, third-party review of the state’s handling of Flint’s water issues.

DEQ Director Dan Wyant, above, said that the official in charge of the safety of drinking water, Liane Shekter Smith, will be reassigned.

Wyant’s announcement comes after months of rising concerns among Flint residents over the safety of their drinking water and lead contamination. It also comes after the recent release of inter-agency communications relating to Flint’s situation that demonstrate confusion behind the scenes.

State officials seemingly failed to heed repeated warnings from the Environmental Protection Agency as far back as February about potential problems with Flint’s water system.

Communications released this week between the federal agency and DEQ also show how an environmental law designed to protect the public allowed the government to utilize questionable water testing practices and move slowly in addressing problems, all while remaining “in compliance” with regulations.

Critics hold the state responsible for the current situation, since Snyder’s appointed emergency manager was in charge when the decision was made to begin drawing water from the Flint River in 2014 to save money. State officials have said that move was a “city decision.”

Problems began then, including residents saying tap water had strange coloring, smell and taste. In the last month, those concerns were dramatically heightened by studies that show lead levels in some children have risen since the switch from Detroit’s water system. Those studies showed that, in some areas, lead levels in children’s blood samples have doubled and, in two ZIP codes, tripled.

Many opportunities missed

Emails and letters released by the state this week show many missed opportunities for health and environmental agencies to identify the lead problems months ago.

In February, an EPA official assessing Flint’s situation raised several concerns with DEQ, particularly with the way the state conducted testing to ensure water coming into city homes was safe to drink. Such testing is required by the federal Lead and Copper Rule.

“Particulate lead release is a normal part of the corrosion process and it is universal (common) in all systems,” wrote Miguel Del Toral, regulations manager for EPA’s Region 5, in a Feb. 27 email to two DEQ staffers.

“It’s just that it’s not captured as often by the infrequent (Lead and Copper Rule) sampling. If systems are pre-flushing the tap the night before collecting … samples … (MDEQ still provides these instructions to public water systems) this clears particulate lead out of the plumbing and biases the results low by eliminating the highest lead values. ...

“The particulate lead is being flushed away before collecting compliance samples which provides false assurance to resident about the true lead levels in the water.”

Del Toral would repeat the same concerns in a widely publicized unofficial memo in April. But at each step along the way, city and officials responded to testing queries by saying their approach met federal guidelines. As recently as Sept. 3, Flint’s Public Works Director Howard Croft supported the testing methods used.

“We have performed over one hundred and sixty lead tests throughout the city since switching over to the Flint River and remain with the EPA standards,” he wrote. “It is also worth noting … there are different lead testing methods used within the industry and the city remains consistent with the most recent EPA approved testing method which can produce different results than other methods.”

Corrosion control lacking

At the same time Del Toral expressed concerns with Michigan’s testing methods, EPA officials also identified another major potential problem with Flint’s water system: corrosion control. Under the Lead and Copper Rule, Flint was required to provide “optimal corrosion control” — water additives that prevent lead from old plumbing and service lines from leaching into the drinking water.

Two February EPA emails to the DEQ released this week indicated the federal agency was perplexed by what appeared to be a lack of such controls in the Flint system. Responses from Michigan over the next several months indicate no such controls were in place. An April 24 email from one DEQ staffer stated bluntly: “Flint is currently not practicing any corrosion control treatment at the water plant.”

On Sunday, Wyant said staffers applied standards of the Lead and Copper Rule that were designed for populations below 50,000. Flint has a population of roughly 100,000, which triggers a different set of criteria and includes performing two six-month testing programs of local water to determine proper corrosion controls.

“None of the DEQ staff in this division had ever worked on a water source switch for a community of over 50,000 people,” he said. “It’s increasingly clear there was confusion here, but it also is increasingly clear that DEQ staff believed they were using the proper federal protocol and they were not.”

The emails released this week also raise questions about statements made by Wyant earlier this month at a news conference. When asked about what corrosion controls had been used since Flint began drawing its water from the river, Wyant indicated the system had been using lime.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, whose research on Flint’s water had directly challenged many of the state’s assertions in recent months, said lime could actually increase the corrosivity of the water interacting with lead plumbing lines. Edwards made the original FOIA request and received the corresponding documents first. DEQ officials later released those documents to the media.

Earlier this week, Wyant addressed his statement about lime in a written response to questions.

“I was relaying what staff and consultants have indicated to me,” he said. “Lime softening was used to address the hardness of the water. While this has an impact on pH, testing bore out that more needed to be done.”

State, EPA officials disagree

State environmental officials and their EPA counterparts apparently disagreed over the corrosion control issue for much of this year. Once Del Toral’s concerns were raised in February, a DEQ official explained why the state had not accounted for corrosion.

Documents released this week include notes from a July meeting between the parties where the state highlighted its reasoning: “MDEQ explained that they did not treat the switch to Flint River water as a ‘new system,’ but as a new source. It is their understanding that two rounds of six-month testing is still needed to characterize the water quality. They don’t know what optimized is until those two rounds of six-month monitoring are completed.”

Emails from this spring show MDEQ officials eventually recognized the need for additional corrosion control measures, yet little progress was made on the issue — right up until Friday’s announcement that Flint had switched back to getting its water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

That type of pacing is completely permissible under the Lead and Copper Rule. Busch, of the DEQ, described the schedule laid out by the federal law.

“They now have to complete a study (within 18 months) and are then allowed a period of additional time (2 additional years) to install the selected treatment for fully optimized corrosion control,” Busch wrote in July. “We are planning to suggest the city directly submit a treatment process to shorten the time-line to achieve full optimization. This letter is currently being drafted but won’t be ready to mail out for another week.”

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