Flint water problems may not be over; DEQ under review

Detroit News wire and staff

Flint — Flint residents should be warned of the potential risk of increased lead in drinking water when crews do underground work that could affect pipes, according to a report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The recommendation was included in an EPA report released Wednesday about high lead levels in drinking water at three homes. The EPA said the report is being sent to the National Drinking Water Advisory Council for discussion next month, The Flint Journal reported.

The EPA’s warning on Flint water comes as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality faces increased scrutiny over how the agency handled Flint’s switch to Flint River water in early 2014.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, on Thursday called on Republican leaders to hold hearings on the matter and empower a Senate committee with subpoena power to compel testimony, if necessary.

“The Legislature has a unique role and responsibility in thoroughly examining what went wrong, what still needs to be fixed and how to ensure this sort of crisis never happens again,” Ananich said.

Gov. Rick Snyder appointed a five-person bipartisan task force to review the actions of DEQ and other governmental agencies in Flint’s switch to Flint River water. The task force is being chaired by former Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, who is now a policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, and former state Rep. Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council.

The state’s Auditor General, Doug Ringler, said last week his office will look into questions Ananich has raised about the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.

Ringler’s office already had an operational audit of the office underway before Ananich requested state auditor find out what “accountability measures” are in place for DEQ staff who do not follow water testing data protocols.

Ananich said the ongoing inquiries are far less powerful than one conducted by the legislative branch.

“Each of the other reviews are either agencies investigating themselves or experts who don’t have the powers or accountability that elected officials have,” Ananich said. “We can provide a public and transparent look at the issues that none of these approaches are guaranteed to deliver.”

But Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, has the power to create a special committee to investigate the DEQ’s Flint water actions.

Meekhof indicated Thursday he’s content with letting the current investigations play out.

“I’d like the folks that are in charge of gathering data and information do that right now,” said Meekhof, noting the Legislature is busy with matters related to energy policy and rescuing Detroit Public Schools. “We’ve got a lot of other good stuff in front of us right now.”

The EPA report warns that lead can get from aging lead lines into individual homes and can spread to galvanized pipe or interior plumbing. Lead that builds up inside non-lead pipes can be released when it is disturbed by construction or other work.

According to the report, this has “the potential to release large amounts of scale and sediment that could pose an immediate and acute health hazard to the residents.”

Flint switched from Detroit’s water system last year to Flint River water in a cost-cutting move while under state emergency financial management. The Flint River was supposed to be an interim source until the city could join a new system getting water from Lake Huron that is scheduled to be completed next year.

Residents complained, however, about the taste, smell and appearance of river water coming into their homes and businesses. Officials long maintained the water met safety standards, but it was later determined that corrosive river water was drawing lead from aging pipes.

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher who helped raise concerns about Flint’s water system, said the EPA report confirms previous studies that have warned of the effect of disturbing water pipes where lead has built up in scale and sediment.

“I think it’s a big admission that these lead pipes are dangerous,” Edwards said.

The report was released a day after voters ousted Flint’s mayor amid a fallout over the city’s drinking water problems. In Tuesday’s election, newcomer Karen Weaver beat incumbent Dayne Walling, who led the city during the public health emergency.

Walling and other officials blamed state and federal agencies for the city’s water problems. The city has since switched back to Detroit’s water system.