Democrats question scope of Flint water audit

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality focused on the technical requirements of a water safety rule without considering public health implications, multiple lawmakers said Tuesday at a legislative panel meeting exploring Flint’s contaminated water.

Republican state Rep. Ed McBroom of Vulcan in the Upper Peninsula and Democratic Rep. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor came to the same conclusion during the second meeting of the Joint Select Committee on The Flint Water Public Health Emergency.

“The department’s focus clearly does not put public health first. It’s not a priority of their work,” McBroom told state Auditor General Doug Ringler. “How can we go about changing that?”

The committee heard roughly an hour of testimony from Ringler, who also testified last week. He told lawmakers his office “did not identify a trail” of communications between the environmental and health departments that would suggest they were in close contact as the Flint water crisis developed.

The auditor general’s report concluded that the department should have required the city to use corrosion control chemicals when it began drawing drinking water from the Flint River in April 2014.

While the rule is ambiguous in some respects, Ringler said that because the Lake Huron water Flint previously purchased from Detroit included corrosion controls, that treatment should have continued after the switch to a local water source.

“We believe the DEQ inappropriately interpreted the (federal Lead and Copper Rule) and then in essence consistently stuck by whatever that decision was,” Ringler told lawmakers.

The harsh Flint River water ended up damaging aging pipes that leached lead into the city’s drinking water supply. Residents continue to rely on bottled water and filters for their daily needs.

The auditor general concluded that the DEQ did not intentionally deceive the federal Environmental Protection Agency, where Region 5 regulator Miguel Del Toral raised red flags about the state’s interpretation of the Lead and Copper Rule in a June 2015 memo.

Democrats pressed Ringler on that point, noting his other conclusions that the state repeatedly misinterpreted the Lead and Copper Rule by allowing two six-month testing periods in Flint before considering the need for corrosion control treatments.

Irwin said the department “interpreted the rule in a way that was less protective of public health” and suggested those interpretations constituted a pattern that the agency intended to violate the federal rule.

“It sounds like, for your purposes, you had to have an absolutely smoking gun,” Irwin told Ringler. “You had to have video of someone pushing the poison button.”

Ringler said his office received more than 700,000 emails from the department, which was cooperative with its audit. They whittled the collection down to 7,500 “relevant” emails using an algorithm and series of search terms, including fraud, expose, hide, illegal, Miguel Del Toral, corrosion control, phosphate, certified and Flint.

Gov. Rick Snyder has repeatedly criticized bureaucrats in the state environmental department for lacking “common sense” when it came to corrosion control treatments, which experts believe could have prevented the Flint lead contamination crisis.

Department Director Dan Wyant resigned in late December. Liane Shekter Smith, former chief of Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, was fired in February.

Snyder has said the state will consider “a much higher standard” for water safety than the “dumb and dangerous” Lead and Copper Rule, and Ringler told lawmakers such an action is within their purview.

But Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, speaking with reporters after the hearing, said Snyder is partly to blame for the departmental culture that he now criticizes.

Under the governor’s watch, the environmental quality department has been reorganized to focus on helping businesses “maneuver the system” rather than serve as an enforcement agency, The Flint Democrat argued.

“We need to have an environment where people can operate, but the protection of the public needs to be first, and I think we heard that today. That is not the main focus of the DEQ.”

Ananich said he believes the auditor general’s probe of the environmental department was too limited.

“If you look at key word searches like fraud and not legionella — you know, I know not everyone is living this like I am, but I would have hoped that would have been a little bit more in depth,” he said.

Sen. Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican who chairs the committee, said he expects to call DEQ officials to testify before the panel as it considers possible policy recommendations.

Stamas told reporters he has not yet decided whether he will call Snyder to testify under oath.

“I think we still have plenty of individuals, such as those within Flint and the MDEQ, that we hope to hear from in the future,” he said. “We have not made any conclusions yet.”