Task force: EM decisions led to Flint crisis

Jim Lynch, Chad Livengood and Jacob Carah
The Detroit News

Flint — Gov. Rick Snyder’s own task force on Wednesday issued a blistering critique of his response to the Flint water crisis, accusing his administration and others in state government of “failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice” in the contamination of Flint’s water supply.

The Snyder-appointed task force focused on the failings of state government at multiple levels, particularly how Flint’s affairs were handled while the city was under the control of emergency managers appointed by the Republican governor. Task force members also called for a review of the state’s controversial emergency manager law.

“Emergency managers made key decisions that contributed to the crisis, from the use of the Flint River to delays in reconnecting to DWSD (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) once water quality problems were encountered,” a report summary reads.

One of the long-standing unanswered questions in the Flint crisis has been who was responsible for the controversial decision to use the Flint River as a short-term water source. The panel’s co-chair, Ken Sikkema, a former Michigan Senate majority leader, was clear on the panel’s findings in that matter.

“It’s our finding that clearly, (emergency managers) are the ones that made the decision to switch to the Flint River and to stick with it …,” he said.

Sikkema added later on Flint’s emergency managers: “Ed Kurtz made the decision to switch. Darnell Earley was there when the switch was made. And both Darnell Earley and Jerry Ambrose did not recommend going back to the Detroit system when problems mounted.”

Lead contamination in the blood work of Flint children, as well as spikes in the number of Legionnaires’ disease cases, are believed to be linked to Flint’s use of its river for 18 months beginning in April 2014.

The task force said state health and environmental officials should have assumed the deadly spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases was linked to the switch in water sources “rather than assuming and communicating the opposite.”

“Ultimately, the corrosiveness of the drinking water leached lead from pipes and plumbing fixtures, and it may have increased the likelihood of water contamination with legionella,” the report said.

‘Environmental injustice’

The six-member task force is comprised of experts on topics ranging from public health to environmental issues.

Its members were clear in their criticisms Wednesday that the failures in Flint demonstrated the qualifications of environmental injustice.

Task force member Dr. Lawrence Reynolds of Mott Children’s Center and Sikkema addressed the allegation.

“... Intention doesn’t matter, it’s the disparate effect,” Reynolds said. “The components of environmental justice require that people who are different are listened to fairly in a neutral environment. And when there is any disparate effect identified, that it’s remediated.”

Sikkema added: “It’s about equal treatment — in this case equal environmental protection and public health protection regardless of race, national origin or income — as one pillar of it. And the second pillar is meaningful participation in government decision making.

“... There was no meaningful … participation in government decisions when you don’t have a democratic process.”

Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, also noted the task force report’s “environmental injustice” description for the havoc Flint’s foul water has wreaked on a African-American majority city of about 100,000 residents.

“I think the report recognizes the how it happened, but it doesn’t necessarily answer why,” Dillon said.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, meanwhile, said she welcomed the report and called for state and federal legislators to find the funds to address the missteps.

“Our residents were poisoned by drinking lead-laced water for 18 months and still cannot use the water coming out of their taps for drinking, cooking or just brushing their teeth,” she said in a statement.

“They are paying a high price for mistakes that were made. Yet there has been absolutely no sense of urgency by state and federal elected officials to get Flint the funding it needs.”

State, gov’s office faulted

In the report released Wednesday, Michigan’s departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services were specifically called to account for their actions in handling Flint’s water issues. But Snyder and his staff were cited for their lack of oversight.

“Neither the governor nor the governor’s office took steps to reverse poor decisions by MDEQ and state-appointed emergency managers until October 2015, in spite of mounting problems and suggestions to do so by senior staff members in the governor’s office, in part because of continued reassurances from MDEQ that the water was safe,” the report reads.

“The significant consequences of these failures for Flint will be long-lasting. They have deeply affected Flint’s public health, its economic future, and residents’ trust in government.”

Task force members faulted the DEQ for failing to enforce drinking water regulations, while the state health department was criticized for failing to “adequately and promptly act to protect public health.”

“Both agencies, but principally (DEQ), stubbornly worked to discredit and dismiss others’ attempts to bring the issues of unsafe water, lead contamination and increased cases of (Legionnaires’ disease) to light,” the report reads.

“With the City of Flint under emergency management, the Flint Water Department rushed unprepared into full-time operation of the Flint Water Treatment Plant, drawing water from a highly corrosive source without the use of corrosion control.”

Chris Kolb, the task force’s co-chair, said Wednesday: “I’ve been asked several times what caused this. It was a mixture of ignorance, incompetence and arrogance by many decision-makers that created a toxic and tragic situation that created the Flint water crisis. And it could have been avoided.”

Task force members credited the “critical role played by engaged Flint citizens, by individuals both inside and outside of government who had the expertise and willingness to question and challenge government leadership,” along with “members of a free press who used the tools that enable investigative journalism.”

In December, the same panel released preliminary findings from its investigation — a move that resulted in the immediate resignations of DEQ Director Dan Wyant and his spokesman, Brad Wurfel.

Task force findings in December also included harsh assessments of state government performance in its oversight of Flint while the city was under Snyder-appointed emergency managers. Officials at DEQ bore the brunt of the criticisms.

Flint’s water troubles have centered around decisions made in the wake of the city joining the Karegnondi Water Authority, which is expected to come online in June or July. After decades on the DWSD system, Flint agreed to join the authority early in 2013.

While awaiting completion of the KWA, the city began drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014 — a move that immediately led to citizen complaints about the water’s smell, taste and coloring.

Eventually, investigators determined that a failure to include corrosion controls with the river water likely contributed to lead contamination and likely opened the door to the development of Legionella bacteria.

In the 18 months Flint used the river, lead levels in local children rose and 10 people are believed to have died in connection with spikes in cases of Legionnaires’ disease.


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