State staff in Flint got water before crisis emerged

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The state provided its workers in Flint with bottled water in January 2015, 10 months before officials would tell residents the water was not safe to drink, according to state emails released Thursday by liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan.

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The decision was unrelated to elevated lead levels that were later found in Flint’s drinking water, said Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

Instead, the management and budget department decided to provide water coolers in a Flint state office building after the city sent out a notice saying it had been found in violation of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act because of high levels of disinfection byproducts.

“While the City of Flint states that corrective actions are not necessary, DTMB is in the process of providing a water cooler on each occupied floor, positioned near the water fountain, so you can choose which water to drink,” said a Jan. 7, 2015 Flint Water Advisory from the the state management and budget department’s facilities division obtained under a Progress Michigan open records request.

“This was DTMB acting as a manager of the building and as a customer of Flint water,” Buhs said. “We received this notice and took steps for the tenants of that building.”

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The management and budget office continued to provide water coolers in the Flint state office building since January 2015, he said. The decision occurred shortly before Gov. Rick Snyder awarded the city a $2 million grant to improve its water system, Buhs noted.

The state worked with the city to address the problems, as the $2 million grant for water infrastructure makes clear, Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said late Thursday.

The city was required to send out the violation notice after the state Department of Environmental Quality cited Flint for unusually high levels of trihalomethanes, or TTHM, a byproduct of the water chlorination process.

“As we know now, there was a failure at all levels of government regarding Flint water,” Murray said. “Once Gov. Snyder became aware of the lead problems, he responded aggressively. We continue to work to address the immediate needs of the people in Flint as well as potential long-term problems caused by the lead issue.”

But Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal group Progress Michigan, said the DTMB memo was evidence “the state wasn’t as slow as we first thought in responding to the Flint Water Crisis.”

“Sadly, the only response was to protect the Snyder administration from future liability and not to protect the children of Flint from lead poisoning,” Scott said. “While residents were being told to relax and not worry about the water, the Snyder administration was taking steps to limit exposure in its own building.”

Former DEQ Director Dan Wyant and his spokesman resigned in late December after acknowledging the department failed to require the addition of proper corrosion controls to Flint River water, which the city began using in April of 2014.

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A task force appointed by Snyder placed much of the blame for the Flint crisis on the DEQ and said the agency’s response to public complaints about the drinking water “was often one of aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit” independent studies that revealed elevated lead levels.

State health official confirmed lead problems on Oct. 1 and said residents should not drink the water from their taps. Flint switched back to Detroit water on Oct 16, but the water is still not considered safe to drink.

A Jan. 9 email obtained by Progress Michigan shows Michael Prysby, a district engineer with DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, was aware of the DTMB decision.

“Appears certain state departments are concerned with Flint’s WQ (water quality),” he wrote in a memo to other DEQ staffers, including Stephen Busch and Liane Shekter Smith, who were later reassigned for failures related to the Flint water crisis.

The state suspended two unnamed employees last week pending an investigation that could lead to further discipline.