ACLU sounds Flint water alarm ahead of EPA summit

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is calling for the state to implement new water testing protocols for Flint schools and urging officials against making any “safe water” declaration when they meet this week for a closely watched data summit.

Gov. Rick Snyder has said science alone will dictate any “all clear” signals for drinking Flint water, but publicly available testing data does not tell the full story of what is happening in the city’s schools, said ACLU executive director Kary Moss.

“The history of what has happened in Flint is of the state doing as little as possible, and that is exactly what we are seeing in the public schools,” Moss said in a Monday conference call with reporters. “These children have been neglected.”

The ACLU, citing information it obtained in a class-action lawsuit it filed against the state on behalf of Flint students, says that while drinking fountain fixtures have been replaced, sinks in school bathrooms have not been tested for lead or equipped with filters even though students could drink water from them.

A central kitchen used to prepare food for students throughout the district did not have water filters installed as of mid-November, the organization claims, and the state has not confirmed whether it completed plans to install filters in Northwestern High School, which tested for dangerously high lead levels in October.

A water sample drawn from Southwestern High in early November tested at 41 parts per billion lead, according to the ACLU, exceeding the 15 part federal action limit.

Asked about the ACLU allegations, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said Monday that all Flint schools remain “on bottled water,” meaning students are provided a supply of safe drinking water.

Fixtures in Flint schools “have been replaced at all points where water is anticipated to be used for consumptive purposes,” Michael Shore explained in an email. “We have installed fixtures and are testing filtered water; test results are posted to the (state) website as reports are completed.”

But the department does not recognize the reality that kids often drink from sinks and has not tested the supply at any Flint school for water-borne bacteria, said Laura Sullivan, a mechanical engineering professor at Kettering University and member of the Flint Water Interagency Coordination Committee.

“That’s a significant health risk, and I can say that from experience,” Sullivan said Monday on the ACLU conference call, telling reporters she was personally diagnosed with shigella last summer and is “not willing to take any risks.”

Genesee County, which includes Flint, was home to a shigellosis outbreak in 2016. More than 80 cases of the highly contagious gastrointestinal illness were reported through September.

“These issues must be addressed before anyone can say the water in Flint is safe and especially before anyone can say that the water is safe for children in Flint schools,” Sullivan said.

The ACLU warning comes as federal, state, city and university experts are set to convene Tuesday in Chicago for an invitation-only “Flint data summit” hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The meeting is not open to the press.

Scientists and officials are expected to discuss new Flint water quality data, including results from the latest six-month testing period required under the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which concluded Dec. 31.

Snyder has expressed hope that improving test results will eventually give way to let Flint residents drink tap water without a filter, which they have been advised against doing since October 2015. But the governor and other officials have stressed that Tuesday’s meeting is unlikely to produce any direct declaration of water safety.

“The summit is not a decision-making meeting and there’s no attempt to come up with any consensus opinions,” a federal Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson told The Detroit News in an email. “It is an opportunity for scientists who are studying Flint’s drinking water to compare notes and discuss their conclusions about the state of the water system’s recovery.”

A number of those same experts are expected to attend a town hall meeting the following day in Flint organized by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Mayor Karen Weaver is expected to host the Wednesday town hall, scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the University of Michigan-Flint Northbank Center.

The EPA invited the Snyder administration and various state department officials to Tuesday’s meeting in Chicago, along with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the city of Flint and the Genesee County Health Department.

Dr. Marc Edwards and other researchers from Virginia Tech University who first helped expose the Flint water crisis are expected at the summit. Invitations were also extended to experts at the University of Michigan and Kettering University in Flint.

“The test results data we take to Chicago on Tuesday should build on the continuous improvement we have seen in recent months,” George Krisztian, Flint action plan coordinator for the state environmental department, said in a statement.

“At this point, we are still processing late-arriving samples, but so far it is clear that the Flint water system has made significant progress in the past year in terms of water quality.”

The state department’s latest round of “sentinel site” testing showed more than 96 percent of samples tested below the federal lead action level of 15 parts per billion.

The federal Lead and Copper Rule requires test results at 90 percent of “Tier 1” homes with lead service lines fall under that threshold, a goal Flint did not meet during the previous six-month period, which ran from Jan.1 to June 30.

Flint would have to test below 15 ppb for two consecutive six-month periods to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, said ACLU legal director Mike Steinberg.

The organization has also sued the state in an attempt to force bottled water delivery to any Flint home where officials cannot verify the presense of a filter. Attorneys for both sides are set to meet with a new case mediator this week.