State rules delay judgment on key Michigan environmental official in Flint water crisis
A state environmental official has been on paid leave for 21/2 months pending an investigation even though Gov. Rick Snyder promised Congress a crackdown on state “career bureaucrats” involved in one of the biggest public health disasters in Michigan’s history.
In response to Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis, state Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant and department spokesman Brad Wurfel resigned in late December. On, Feb. 5, Snyder announced the dismissal of Liane Shekter Smith, an appointee and former head of the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.
Stephen Busch, the Office of Drinking Water’s Lansing and Jackson district supervisor, spent five days on unpaid leave in late January, the maximum allowable under civil service rules.
The DEQ supervisor earns $93,876 a year and began his stint on paid leave Feb. 1, according to the State Budget Office. He is the only known civil servant under investigation.
Busch was among the first officials to warn about problems that could arise from using Flint River water. It is unclear why he subsequently appeared to support using the river for drinking water and the decision not to use corrosion controls in the water.
“The department is taking the time to ensure that proper due diligence takes place collecting/reviewing facts, interviewing staff and gathering information which is all taken into consideration when making conclusions about staff responsibility in the matter,” DEQ spokeswoman Melanie Brown said in an email.
Snyder pledged to focus on employees in the DEQ and Department of Health and Human Services concerning Flint’s water and Legionnaires’ disease problems. In response to the spike in Flint-area Legionnaires’ cases — 91 cases recorded over 17 months beginning in June 2014, including 12 deaths — Snyder called on March 11 for an investigation into the health department.
“I am committed to finding the instances where these people haven’t gotten the idea that we work for the citizens,” Snyder said under questioning at the March 17 hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “And I am going to be relentless in following up to make sure we make the changes necessary that this never happens again. ...”
The governor still wants accountability and continues to push for answers, Snyder’s director of communications said.
“While we don’t talk about specific personnel actions out of respect for an individual’s privacy, so far, there have been several changes at (DEQ) at different levels, plus reviews are continuing,” Ari Adler said in an emailed response to questions. “There have been changes in personnel as well as the culture within the governor’s office in that we are demanding more answers from departments and questioning answers that don’t feel right.
“And we are working to change the culture in state government so that people feel more empowered to use common sense and go above and beyond when it comes to protecting the people they serve rather than just settling for checking a box on a regulatory form.”
Emails and internal communications released through public records requests paint Busch as a central figure in Flint’s water crisis. Snyder has said top managers in the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance decided not to require corrosion controls when the city began drawing water from the Flint River in April 2014.
But state emails also show Busch recognized problems could arise from Flint using the river as its water source. On March 26, 2013, he wrote that regular use of the river could:
■“Pose an increased microbial risk to public health.”
■“Pose an increased risk of disinfections by-product (carcinogen) exposure to public health.”
■“Require significant enhancements to treatment at the Flint (water treatment plant). ...”
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, has criticized the Snyder administration for creating the culture at DEQ and the Department of Health and Human Services, saying it must be changed for “true accountability.”
“There’s no question that more people should be removed from making life-and-death decisions about public health based on the failures that occurred,” Ananich said in a statement. “Anyone who knew what was happening and didn’t take action, including the governor’s political appointees, needs to be held accountable.”
But Adler noted the governor’s office must follow “a long, involved process” when evaluating civil service employees, in contrast to appointees.
“Appointees are at-will employees and serve at the pleasure of the governor,” he said. “On the other hand, civil service employees are protected by civil service rules established by the constitutionally created Civil Service Commission and, in some cases, union contracts.”
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials, who oversee water issues under the Lead and Copper Rule, have said they were initially misled about whether Flint was using such controls in February 2015.
EPA officials, spurred by their water expert Miguel Del Toral, asked the DEQ in an email what it was doing about corrosion control in Flint. On Feb. 27, 2015, Busch responded with an email that stated: “(Flint) has an optimized corrosion control program.”
Michigan officials have contended this response referred to their belief the city needed to conduct two, six-month periods of water testing before making a decision. Such testing was underway when Busch wrote his response.
But two months later, in April 2015, another state Office of Drinking Water worker wrote to EPA: “Flint is currently not practicing corrosion control treatment at (Flint’s) water treatment plant.”
Water experts have said anti-corrosion chemical treatments, usually phosphorus, are a basic requirement for water systems as old as Flint’s. In June 2015, EPA’s Del Toral accurately predicted Flint’s looming lead-contaminated water problem in a memo.
Busch and other DEQ officials wrote emails indicating they did not welcome Del Toral’s continued questioning of their methods.
“If he continues to persist, we may need Liane (Shekter Smith) or Director Wyant to make a call to EPA to help address his over-reaches,” Busch wrote in an April 27, 2015, email to a DEQ colleague.
Busch also was involved in early communications about a rise in Flint-area cases of Legionnaires’ disease. Busch was one of three recipients of a March 2015 email from DEQ district engineer Mike Prysby that included a six-point plan for responding to a spike in the number Legionnaires’ cases that began in June 2014.
“We need a plan of action fast,” wrote Richard Benzie, chief of field operations for MDEQ. State officials, however, did not go public about a Legionnaires’ problem — which was possibly linked to the water — until Snyder held a press conference in January 2016.