State under mounting scrutiny for Flint’s water crisis
Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder and his administration face mounting scrutiny for Flint’s drinking water crisis, which began when a state emergency manager switched the supply source to save money and has culminated with high lead levels in some children.
Flint’s switch back to a Detroit-area system after more than 17 months is vindication for residents and others who complained for months about the safety, smell, taste and appearance of water from the city’s river. The about-face — which came after the state corroborated outside findings of elevated lead levels in children despite initially doubting the results — raises questions about the state’s role.
What was supposed to be a cost-cutting move for a 99,000-resident city in financial crisis turned into a health emergency and could end up costing state government at least $10.6 million.
What galls those who helped expose the fiasco is not only the initial decision to pump corrosive, less stable Flint River water without adequate treatment, which let the water pick up lead from more than 15,000 aging pipes that connect water mains to houses. It also is the response since, both from city officials and state environmental regulators who assured the public the water was safe.
As far back as February, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality water supervisor told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Flint had an optimized corrosion control plan in place. But by April, an EPA official confirmed through another DEQ official that was untrue, according to emails obtained through a public records request by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU began investigating after residents continually raised concerns about the water.
Snyder endorsed a return to Detroit’s system — which treats water from Lake Huron — and is asking lawmakers to help foot the extra cost until Flint joins the new Thumb-area Karegnondi Water Authority next year. He acted at the behest of a committee of water experts but said it also was clear the public had lost confidence in the water supply.
“The protocols were being followed as established by the U.S. EPA, in terms of the testing that needed to be done,” the Republican governor said. “What apparently is true is there needed to be more work. … Those are kind of the learning experiences.”
The state initially downplayed lead concerns, saying city-provided samples showed fewer than 10 percent had levels above the federal action level. In August, after a year of testing, it told Flint to start corrosion treatment, now a moot point given the impending change in water source.
“What we knew in the summer vs. what we know now is distinctly different,” said DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel. He said the agency did things “by the book” but is talking with the EPA and internally about whether “some editing needs to happen to the book.”
There could be statewide, even national implications that extend beyond Flint.
For instance, the state instructs drinking water systems to collect samples by asking residents to flush the tap the night before. Miguel Del Toral, an EPA official, has raised concerns that while the practice is not specifically prohibited by federal rules designed to find “worst-case” conditions, it minimizes true lead levels and gives residents a false sense of security.
Separately, DEQ Director Dan Wyant said the state will proactively address potential lead in all schools’ water, especially in older buildings, after screening showed elevated levels in three Flint schools.
Lead — a metal that can cause developmental delays and learning disabilities — is just the latest issue since Flint changed its water supply in April 2014.
There have been high levels of a disinfectant byproduct. Increased bacteria levels forced boil-water advisories.
ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss said the Flint “disaster” stems from “short-sighted” budgetary decisions made by an emergency manager, which were defended by his successor. Those responsible must be held accountable, she said.
Flint was under state-run emergency management from 2011 through this past April, and a transition board still oversees budgets and contracts.
Critics have questions about how adequately Flint River water was studied before the move, why lead pipes were not protected from corrosion and if the water caused long-lasting damage to the city’s already-decaying infrastructure.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said mistakes were made.
“It’s important to look back and say, ‘How were these things missed? Who missed them? And what steps can be put in place to make sure they don’t get missed in the future, in my community or anywhere else?’” he said.