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DEQ fires worker who supervised Flint’s water

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality said Friday it has fired the former head of the division responsible for supervising Flint’s water source switch.

Until October, Liane Shekter Smith served as chief of DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance. On Oct. 19, DEQ Director Dan Wyant told The Detroit News his staffers monitoring Flint failed to properly interpret the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which regulates drinking water, failing to put in place corrosion controls for the drinking water.

Snyder’s office said Friday the former head of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance had been terminated. The move comes more than four months after Shekter Smith received a $2,652 performance bonus, the state confirmed Friday.

“Putting the well-being of Michiganders first needs to be the top priority for all state employees,” Snyder said in a statement. “Anything less than that is unacceptable. The DEQ is working to change this culture and ensure mistakes that endanger our residents don’t occur again.”

The development came as Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, one of Snyder’s two key advisers on the Flint water crisis, was asked Friday about calls for Snyder’s resignation by Democrats including Michigan party Chairman Brandon Dillon and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“I’m not going to speculate or go down the road to discussing a resignation,” said Calley, who would become governor if Snyder resigned. “I know that the governor is completely committed to seeing this through, and I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to provide a better future that the people of Flint deserve.”

In October, Wyant reassigned Shekter Smith to keep her away from decision-making on Flint’s water issues. Wyant and DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel resigned their positions in late December as scrutiny of the state’s handling of Flint increased and a Snyder-appointed task force accused a “culture of passivity” at the DEQ for Flint’s lead-contaminated water.

Last month, new DEQ Director Keith Creagh told The Detroit News that in-house reviews of the state’s decisions in the Flint crisis had centered on the office and, in particular, Shekter Smith and Stephen Busch, the Lansing and Jackson District supervisor.

On Jan. 22, Snyder announced the suspension of two unnamed DEQ employees, whom sources have confirmed as Shekter Smith and Busch. The governor said then “some DEQ actions lacked common sense and that resulted in this terrible tragedy in Flint.”

Friday’s announcement made no mention of the investigation into Busch.

For 22 months, Flint has dealt with lead contamination stemming from a switch in the city’s water source. While under the control of an emergency manager appointed by Snyder, the city ended its longtime relationship with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and began drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014.

The Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance’s failure to require Flint to utilize corrosion controls in the river water is believed to have allowed the contamination to take place. State officials said they believed the federal Lead and Copper Rule required two six-month rounds of testing before a determination on the use of corrosion measures needed to be made. With that mindset, Flint was allowed to begin using river water with no such controls.

Glenn Daigger, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Michigan, said in January the idea of including corrosion controls in a water system as large as Flint’s is fairly rudimentary.

“That is absolutely something that should be provided,” he said.

Under the state’s supervision, Flint not only failed to use corrosion controls but did not have the equipment needed to add those chemicals to the water. Robert Kaplan, EPA’s interim Region 5 chief, said Tuesday that when his agency had first communicated with the water treatment plant in August, Flint needed things that “they should have already had at the plant,” including “pumps and other equipment that is needed for water treatment.”

In addition to Wyant and Wurfel, the Flint crisis also claimed EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, who stepped down Monday.

State officials provided few specifics on Shekter Smith’s actions, but her name appears regularly in emails and documents first acquired last year by ACLU Michigan and Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, who helped identify Flint’s water contamination.

In general, the emails show a lack of recognition of the seriousness of Flint’s mounting water crisis. State officials have confirmed they were aware at least as early as December 2014 that the Flint’s water contained a level of lead above what federal law deems acceptable. Creagh told The Detroit News last month that the discovery should have triggered the immediate implementation of corrosion measures.

Yet for the next 10 months, while no steps were taken to immediately address the lead contamination, Shekter Smith and others continued to communicate without a sense of urgency.

Nine months after the lead discovery, Shekter Smith and Busch were part of an email exchange in which staffers were still discussing how Flint was preparing to install corrosion controls. On Sept. 3, 2015, the two received a message saying Flint would have a proposal “within the next one to two months.”

More than a week later, Shekter Smith and Busch discussed a timeline for Flint to install corrosion measures that was even longer, again with no sense of urgency.

“They have until the end of the year to make a recommendation, but they are planning to have treatment in place by January 2016,” Busch wrote.

“It should be noted that the city does not need to obtain a construction permit to install treatment,” Shekter Smith replied. “They have not yet applied for such a permit. So I’m not sure what (Flint Mayor Dayne Walling) means about us finally allowing them to proceed. The ball’s in their court.”

In the end, Flint never added the corrosion controls.

After Edwards released his findings of lead in Flint’s water in late summer 2015, Hurley Medical Center researcher Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha soon followed with her own study detailing heightened levels in the blood of Flint’s children.

The city eventually reconnected to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in October and a state of emergency was declared in January.


Jacob Carah contributed.