Ex-DEQ staffer denies ‘sweetheart’ Flint deal

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A former state water regulator is recanting her characterization that Flint got a “sweetheart” deal that paved the way for construction of a new water pipeline and the city’s temporary use of the Flint River for drinking water.

Nicole Zacharda, a former enforcement specialist in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Resources Division, said Thursday an email she sent Dec. 19, 2013, is being taken out of context of the agency’s internal bureaucratic “lingo.”

Zacharda’s email to fellow DEQ water regulators said an attorney for the Karegnondi Water Authority was “seeking what I’d characterize as a 'sweetheart'” administrative consent order or permit to help ease Flint’s “ability to access bond funding” for the new Lake Huron water pipeline project.

Flint needed to clean up its water treatment plant’s lime sludge dumping ground to get financing for the $285 million project, public records show.

The Zacharda email has surfaced among the thousands of pages of DEQ emails related to Flint’s April 2014 switch to the Flint River for a temporary drinking water source while the KWA pipeline was constructed.

Zacharda said Thursday her use of the term “sweetheart” was a “completely innocent” yet careless way to describe a utility that voluntarily sought to comply with state environmental laws.

“It’s stupid that we call it a sweetheart deal, but that’s just the nomenclature of someone who comes in willingly to make a deal,” she said in an interview with The Detroit News. “It’s easy to understand that people wouldn’t understand what it meant — it’s inside baseball lingo.”

Zarcharda said she didn’t think the email would become public several years later.

“DEQ staff working in enforcement should be very cautious — and I wasn’t — in using the term sweetheart deal,” she told The News. “There’s some jargon that we use ... and you don’t always pause to think how that would look to someone outside of an agency or the boutique shop of enforcement.”

In most cases, Zacharda said, the state agency has to force environmental cleanup, which often drags out compared with voluntary compliance.

“We were just trying to get the storm water cleaned up on the site,” said Zacharda, who left the DEQ last year to become a project manager at the Great Lakes Commission in Ann Arbor.

Email records show Flint sought to expedite DEQ’s approval process in late 2013 and earlier 2014 to keep on schedule for construction of a pipeline expected to begin pumping water from Lake Huron this summer. Flint’s hook-up to the KWA pipeline has since been delayed until next year.

Michael Robinson, an attorney at the Warner Norcross law firm, handles environmental legal compliance for Flint and was in close contact with DEQ officials in late 2013 and early 2014, records show.

Zacharda’s involvement in the matter was brief after Robinson asked for assistance in resolving issues surrounding the city’s non-compliant sludge dumping facility, records show. She passed off the issue to Stephen Busch, the Lansing/Jackson district supervisor in DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.

“For those of us at the staff level, I think we knew this was a hot potato that nobody wanted to get involved in unless they absolutely had to,” Zacharda said of the KWA project and Flint water plant.

Busch is a central figure the Flint water crisis and was charged last month by Attorney General Bill Schuette for misconduct in office for allegedly tampering with lead test results, misleading federal and county officials about Flint’s water problems and botching enforcement of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.

Robinson worked closely with Busch and other state regulators in the winter of 2014 to secure language in a sludge site consent order that Flint’s bond attorneys said was necessary for securing financing for the KWA, records show.

The correspondence came just before Flint stopped using Detroit’s water system and started treating river water as a temporary source that was supposed to last less than three years.

On March 18, 2014, Robinson sought to speed up the process — while Flint officials were racing to get the water treatment plant ready for an April 25 switch to river water.

“I was advised late today that the city must have this order signed by the end of this week or significant delays will occur, such as losing an entire construction season on the new water supply for Flint,” Robinson wrote in an email to three DEQ employees, including Busch.

Robinson said Thursday he was focused on getting Flint’s water treatment processes in compliance with environmental laws, while relaying how the issue related to financing construction of the KWA pipeline.

“I passed along that message,” he said.


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Twitter: @ChadLivengood