Officials meet in Chicago to discuss Flint water crisis

Jim Lynch and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Government agencies holding sway over the next steps in Flint’s nearly three-year water crisis met in Chicago on Tuesday in a controversial closed-door session.

It was a meeting touted as an opportunity for officials to share testing data on the safety of city drinking water after nearly three years of contamination issues. But the decision to work out of the public eye drew criticism.

Many residents and elected officials said the decision not to open the meeting recalled earlier days in the crisis when locals were kept in the dark about high lead readings, as well as a spike in cases of Legionnaire’s disease.

Tuesday’s meeting featured representatives from the city of Flint, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and Virginia Tech researchers who have helped document Flint’s water contamination issues. Many of those same officials are expected to be on hand in Flint on Wednesday for a town hall meeting to discuss the latest findings with the public.

Melissa Mays, a Flint resident who has worked to compel state and federal regulators to deal with the city’s problems, traveled to Chicago this week to make her opposition the closed-door meeting known.

“This isn’t right,” she told The Detroit News in a phone call from EPA headquarters. “All the meetings and decisions that were made behind closed doors, that’s how we got poisoned in the first place, by not including Flint residents in any of the decisions.”

Flint residents should at least have had the option to view a livestream of the meeting, she said: “It’s our future.”

Representatives for Michigan’s DEQ could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

Robert Kaplan, acting regional administrator for EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago, was at the summit Tuesday. He said the event, the third one related to Flint’s water quality, was intended to gather everyone who produced data and simultaneously review the information, allowing time for comparison.

Those findings will be presented at the town hall meeting Wednesday and posted online, Kaplan said. “This was not a decision-making meeting,” he said. “It was all about making sure everyone understood the data, where we are — basically a snapshot in terms of water progress.”

But others view it differently.

“There is no valid reason to shut out the public from this meeting,” said Henry Henderson, Midwest program director with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’re concerned that the choice to keep these conversations behind closed doors works to simply reinforce the distrust between the community and the government. The Flint Water Crisis is not over until the community trusts their water is safe, and a lack of transparency makes that harder.”

Contamination problems began in April 2014 when the city was under the control of an emergency financial manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder. After decades as a customer of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, Flint began drawing its drinking water from the local river.

Testing results have shown consistent, but slow, improvement. And while the water may soon technically be declared safer for normal use, reestablishing citizen trust could take some time.

“Regardless of what any current water tests may show, the government still has a lot of work to do to regain the trust of Flint residents,” stated state Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, in a release Tuesday. “It’s going to take a complete overhaul of our water system before we have any confidence that state and federal water agencies have our best interest at heart.”

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