State health agency under review for Flint actions

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — As part of an assessment of Flint’s water crisis, Gov. Rick Snyder says the Department of Health and Human Services will be reviewed after officials failed to alert the public when they first learned about an outbreak of deadly Legionnaires’ disease.

As The News first reported Friday, a Michigan health official delayed public notification by issuing a June report declaring the outbreak “over,” an assertion Genesee County health officials fought. Four more people would die in the summer and fall.

The Legionella bacteria sickened 87 people between May 2014 and November 2015, killing nine. A Snyder task force, meanwhile, has warned Flint area hospitals to do more disinfection work to ensure against another outbreak in the spring.

“There are challenges in that agency also, and that is something we are making a review of,” Snyder told reporters about the state health department after an unrelated event Tuesday in downtown Lansing.

Most of the initial attention focused on Flint’s lead-contaminated water that resulted from the city’s switch to the Flint River from the Detroit water system as a drinking water source in April 2014. The water wasn’t treated with corrosion control chemicals and caused leaching of the toxic metal from lead water service lines into the drinking water.

From February 2015 to June, state Department of Environmental Quality officials fought off a federal water quality expert’s warnings about lead exposure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 administrator called the employee’s warnings “premature.” Lead exposure wasn’t acknowledged by the state until early October and a state emergency was declared Jan. 5.

Snyder announced the Legionnaires’ outbreak during a Jan. 13 press conference, saying he was not apprised of the situation until two days prior. The respiratory disease is caused in warmer months by a bacteria in warm, fresh water that leads to a severe form of pneumonia and can be found in large plumbing systems, hot tubs and air-conditioning units.

Asked Tuesday if there was a lack of adequate oversight by himself or cabinet members, Snyder noted there have been changes in his administration as a result of the Flint crisis “in terms of what I was being told.”

Snyder, who has linked the Flint water crisis to failures at all levels of government, said Tuesday the EPA deserves further scrutiny as well. The U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee plans to hold a hearing and have invited Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to testify.

“They failed to do a lot of things in this process,” said Snyder, who has said he wants to testify before Congress. “I’m not going to spend time on their issue. I think that will come out as time passes in terms of not identifying the issue, not bringing it to either the state’s attention of other people in the federal government’s attention.

“They still haven’t fully acknowledged all their issues. We’ll move forward with our piece of it, and I expect, hopefully, people are still asking good tough questions of the federal government. They should be asking.”

Michigan turned down help from the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a Detroit News analysis of more than 24,000 pages of emails released by the Snyder administration and Genesee County. State agency officials also tried to steer Genesee County health officials away from examining the municipal water system as a potential source of the Legionella bacteria.

In late December, DEQ Director Dan Wyant and his spokesman resigned. Liane Shekter Smith, head of the department’s office of drinking water, was fired earlier this month, and another regulator remains suspended pending internal investigation.

Janet Stout, a national expert on Legionnaires’, told The Detroit News that quick state action to involve federal agencies and inform the public might have shortened the outbreak in the Flint area and saved lives.

The state’s handling of the crisis contrasts markedly with how New York state officials dealt with a Legionnaires’ outbreak last summer in the Bronx, said Stout, a research associate professor with the University of Pittsburgh who assisted with both outbreaks. The Bronx spate included 133 cases, resulting in six deaths over about a month.

The state health department last week voluntarily released a series of internal emails related to the Legionnaires’ outbreak, saying staff was aware of the issue by fall 2014 and first offered support to the county health department at that time.

“It’s hard to take all these promised reviews too seriously when we get what seems like daily revelations about more failings and the governor pointing fingers at federal agencies,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said in a statement. “What we really need is for the Legislature to commit to hearings and subpoena power so we can do our jobs.”

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, has resisted calls to hold legislative hearings on the Flint water crisis, saying it would be premature to do so until a task force appointed by the governor has concluded its investigation.

A spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said the House is waiting for a report by the state auditor general, which is “normal procedure.”

“Our short-term priority has been to provide critical resources to the people of Flint, ensuring they have access to clean, fresh water,” Cotter spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said in a Tuesday email, noting supplemental spending bills to address Flint’s water and health needs. “Looking back on what happened and investigating the causes of this crisis will be a long-term focus.”

While the auditor general, governor’s task force and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit pursue “their investigative work,” D’Assandro added, “the Legislature is uniquely positioned right now to help get critical resources on the ground, so that is where we are focused.”

The governor has previously acknowledged errors by the state DEQ.

School to retest 300 Flint homes

Researchers from Virginia Tech are planning to retest water in 300 Flint homes as a follow up to a study they conducted in August that showed widespread elevated lead levels in the water and prompted studies that demonstrated elevated lead levels in children.

Students are assembling water testing kits Friday in Blacksburg, Virginia, as a way to better understand the status of the lead levels in the water since their initial testing in August and also after Flint switched back to Detroit water in October. The EPA is expected to pay for the re-testing.