Regulators dismissed dissenters on Flint crisis

Jonathan Oosting, Christine MacDonald, Joel Kurth, and Jim Lynch

Michigan regulators who failed to ensure proper corrosion control chemicals were added to Flint’s drinking water spent six months dismissing evidence of their error and considered ways to muzzle the federal expert who first sounded alarms about it.

More than 24,000 pages of documents from state agencies involved in Flint water quality issues provide a clearer picture of how the crisis developed. They show water quality complaints from Flint residents, federal officials and whistle-blowers alike were challenged by state bureaucrats, who insisted on strict adherence to their interpretation of federal rules.

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Gov. Rick Snyder and his new Department of Environmental Quality Director Keith Creagh now say a lack of “common sense” by staffers contributed to the lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water.

“The constant second-guessing of how we interpret and implement our rules is getting tiresome,” Pat Cook, a treatment specialist at the state Department of Environmental Quality, told colleagues in a previously unreported April, 27, 2015, email after Miguel Del Toral of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 openly questioned their compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.

The state should have required corrosion control treatments when the city began using Flint River water a year earlier, Del Toral told Cook, also warning that “the whole town may have much higher lead levels” than testing originally indicated because of a “pre-flushing” technique allowed by the state. The state DEQ advised residents to run their cold water faucets for several minutes the night before a test for lead levels — a practice it has since stopped.

Flint residents began complaining about the brown color, rotten-egg smell and bad taste of their tap water almost immediately after the city moved off Detroit’s Lake Huron system in April 2014 and switched to the Flint River. Del Toral was the first water quality expert to suggest bigger problems might be afoot.

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Resident Mona Munroe-Younis, 36, was pregnant and desperate for answers about the Flint River water in July when she sent a lengthy email to the EPA. She wanted advice on filters and whether total trihalomethanes — a byproduct when chlorine is used to disinfect water — could be dangerous to pregnant women if inhaled during hot showers.

“If your wife or sister or friend were living in Flint and pregnant, what course of action would you recommend she take?” Munroe-Younis wrote.

She said she got answers from the EPA on filters but she began to question whether her filter was enough after hearing about continued cases of homes having high lead levels in her neighborhood. She and her husband would go on to spend $2,000 on a Culligan Water System.

“I think as a Flint resident, you are frustrated because you have to do all the research on your own,” Munroe-Younis told The News. “There was no coordinated response.”

“The state, the city, the EPA completely fell down on the job. I feel like you have to take everything they say now with a grain of salt.”

Lead 7 times the safety limit

The EPA’s Del Toral began asking the state about water testing protocols as early as February 2015, when the city told homeowner Lee-Anne Walters it detected 104 parts per billion of lead in water coming from her tap, more than seven times the federal safety action limit. She sent the results to the EPA, prompting Del Toral’s involvement. Later tests would reveal even higher levels.

By April, state environmental regulators confirmed to Del Toral that Flint was not adding corrosion treatments to the new water source but insisted they were properly enforcing federal rules. Del Toral appeared to be getting under their skin, and they discussed taking their frustrations to Department Director Dan Wyant and Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance chief Liane Shekter Smith.

“If he continues to persist, we may need Liane or Director Wyant to make a call to EPA to help address his over-reaches,” Stephen Busch, state DEQ’s Lansing regional director overseeing the Flint system, told Cook and another colleague in an April 27 email.

It’s not clear if the call happened, but the threat reflects resistance within a department that would later admit in mid-October that it erred in failing to add corrosion controls. Wyant resigned in late December after a Snyder-appointed task force blamed the lead contamination of Flint’s water on a “regulatory culture of passive technical compliance that is simply insufficient to the task of public protection.” Shekter Smith was fired last week, while Busch remains on suspension pending further investigation.

Creagh, who took over the state environmental department in early January, told The Detroit News Thursday he continues to assess his new workforce but does not have immediate plans to punish other employees.

“People said, ‘Director, you should just go in and remove people.’ That’s a very simplistic solution to potentially a more complex problem,” he said.

Staff lacked “regulatory curiosity” and failed to treat individual water issues as part of a larger problem, Creagh said, adding that he hopes to build a culture where employees feel comfortable speaking out against the status quo.

“We need to make sure we raise the issue as opposed to bury the issue,” he said. “It’s a sign of strength. Conflict is OK. Innovation actually occurs around tension points.”

Snyder has said he was unaware of the bureaucratic wrangling, has since repeatedly apologized to Flint’s residents for failures at the city, state and federal levels and has vowed to fix the problem.

EPA vetting held up report

Despite the red flags raised by Del Toral, EPA’s Region 5 stayed silent about Flint’s water.

After Del Toral shared his concerns about Flint outside the agency in a June 24 draft report, Region 5 EPA Administrator Susan Hedman told then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling in a July 1 email that the report “should not have been released outside the agency. When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the city and DEQ will be responsible for following up with the city.”

The vetting wasn’t finished until November — after the lead contamination was revealed and the city was back on Detroit’s water system. Hedman resigned Feb. 1.

The DEQ had access to the report by early July, when a reporter pointed public information officer Brad Wurfel to a link, which Wurfel then shared with Wyant, Shekter Smith and others. But in a Sept. 11 email sent from her personal account, EPA Region 5 program officer Jennifer Crooks told DEQ regulators they could “truthfully” tell “the Legislature or whoever” that they had not received the report directly from Del Toral.

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The EPA email was sent a few days after U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and state Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, sent Wyant separate letters asking about the lead contamination concerns raised in Del Toral’s draft report.

In a Sept. 16 response to Kildee, Wyant didn’t mention the report, although emails show earlier drafts noted the department “was aware of the existence of this document” but had not received copies from the EPA. His Sept. 17 response to Ananich briefly explained that the department “does not review or receive draft memos from the USEPA, nor would we expect to while it is a draft.”

Whistle-blowers opposed

Del Toral was not the only whistle-blower to face opposition. In an early September email, Busch questioned independent lead testing by Virginia Tech University Professor Marc Edwards, whom Snyder has since praised and asked to assist with the state response to the Flint crisis. Busch, in an internal email about a media question, told colleagues “we are not aware of any certification for his university’s research laboratory for metals analysis, and it does not appear he has disclosed this fact.”

The lack of urgency over the mounting crisis extended to advice given to residents. Five days after the city sent a lead advisory to residents and one day after the Genesee County Health Department did the same, state water division workers were told to be “polite and empathetic” but tell concerned residents the water was still safe to drink.

“If you receive one of these calls, our message should be consistent — the drinking water distributed to city customers currently meets all drinking water standards and is considered safe,” DEQ field operations section chief Richard Benzie wrote in a Sept. 30 email to staff. “However, there is no safe level for lead.”

Even if testing showed elevated blood lead levels in their homes, Benzie said, the state could tell them to run their faucet “for a few minutes or until the water is cooler ... and then use it for drinking or cooking.”

One day later, Genesee County officials declared a public health emergency and told residents not to drink untested tap water without a filter. That same day, the Michigan Department of Community Health confirmed an independent blood-lead level analysis performed by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center. A a day later on Oct. 2, Gov. Rick Snyder announced a “comprehensive action plan” to address Flint water issues — which resulted in reconnecting Flint to Detroit’s water system two weeks later.

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Sheila Bailey-Waddell was among the Flint residents who questioned the reassurances of government officials. After she sent a series of emails to state and federal officials about water quality throughout last year, including the EPA’s Safe Water Drinking Hotline, the 58-year-old said she felt she got the “brush off” and officials were “shirking their responsibility.”

DEQ district engineer Mike Prysby responded to her questions about lead in the water Oct. 2, reiterating their message that the water met “all applicable drinking water standards” and in the email underlined for emphasis the phrase that they “had not detected the presence of lead in any tap samples.”

The email was sent the same day that Snyder announced his initial plan to address the water crisis.

“I am really disappointed in government, period,” Bailey-Waddell said. “Everybody wanted to lag around and waste time instead of expediting solutions.”

About this report

The News reviewed more than 24,000 pages of documents from state agencies involved in Flint’s water crisis. They were gathered under Freedom of Information Act requests and provided by Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration and Genesee County. They cover the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Michigan Department of Treasury, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Genesee County Health Department, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.