EPA report shows issues in ensuring Mich. water safety

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Poor data management and a dearth of funding and staff have left Michigan unable to ensure safe drinking water, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report released Thursday.

The EPA found that the state is not always following its own drinking water rules in Flint and across Michigan as it uses outdated data tracking techniques and contends with not enough money or staff.

There are “many deficiencies” in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s drinking water program stemming from its “inefficient and antiquated drinking water data management systems,” according to the report.

Too little money, a loss of institutional knowledge because of staff leaving or retiring, and failing to notify the public of drinking water violations were among the key problems highlighted in the report, although a majority of the issues outlined were “not violations of health standards.”

Michigan “must focus on obtaining long-term sources of funding” if it’s going to comply with safe drinking water standards, the EPA said. Michigan’s drinking water rules have to be at least as strict as federal standards.

DEQ spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the department “appreciates the EPA’s extensive review of the state’s Drinking Water Program,” but said the issues it identified were found in other reviews and “are over two years old.”

The problems “in many cases have already been addressed,” Brown said, but officials will “use the recommendations indicated in the report to further improve the Drinking Water Program to better ensure the public’s health and safety.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has called the federal Lead and Copper Rule “dumb and dangerous” and proposed lowering the state’s threshold to 10 parts of lead per billion by 2020, down from the federal standard of 15 parts per billion.

The Republican-controlled Legislature has not addressed his proposal, so Snyder is pursuing administrative rule changes to “phase in” a reduction in the amount of lead that is allowed in public water supplies before the state orders corrective steps.

The report reiterated that the Flint lead-contaminated water crisis was caused in part by the DEQ’s “failure to properly oversee and manage” the city’s 2014 switch to the Flint River for its water supply. A task force appointed by Snyder reached a more biting conclusion in March 2016, saying state government displayed “failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice” in Flint.

The failure of state regulators to require corrosion control chemicals in the river water resulted in lead leaching from the city’s aging pipes into the water supply.

Lead was later found at high rates in children’s blood. There was also a 2014-2015 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that sickened 79 people and killed 12, leading to a debate between outside experts and the state over whether the water switch or poor practices in area hospitals lead to the outbreak of the form of pneumonia.

Federal regulators also found that the reporting of lab results in Michigan was “very inefficient” because electronic data doesn’t automatically upload to the state’s drinking water database, requiring staffers in some cases to enter the information manually.

Christopher Korleski, director of the EPA’s water division, sent a letter to Eric Oswald, the state’s top drinking water regulator, and other DEQ leaders on Wednesday informing them that EPA staff will be meeting with state staffers to discuss the report and work to make drinking water improvements.

“While the report has numerous recommendations, EPA recognizes the improvements that MDEQ has made to its drinking water program over the past year, such as hiring staff to enhance technical capability, revising the sampling protocol for lead and copper, and establishing a ‘peer review’ process that triggers a review of any water system's significant changes in source water or treatment,” the letter said.

Federal regulators are now requiring Michigan to keep track of how it intends on fixing the problems outlined in the report. Despite the state’s declining funding for environmental safety, “EPA finds that MDEQ has not managed the use of its limited resources to better take into account reduced staffing, such as by upgrading its electronic data systems to reduce extensive manual data entry.”