Expert: Flint plant not ready before water switch

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News


A Genesee County water expert testified Monday that he warned state-appointed officials running this city to not open the Flint Water Treatment plant because it was not quite ready to produce clean water and had employees who weren’t experienced enough to run it.

The facility wasn’t capable of producing drinkable water two weeks prior to the switch to the Flint River in April 2014, said John O’Brien, director of water and water services for Genesee County. The chlorine room was under construction at the time, he said, referring to the key chemical for disinfecting the river water as well as other problems that hadn’t been corrected.

The employees he encountered “were happy to have a job” because two weeks earlier they were “riding shotgun” on a garbage truck as haulers. These “trainees” from Flint’s solid waste management group needed at least 90 days to six months of training to “effectively work independently without constant oversight,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien testified as a witness in the criminal preliminary exam hearing of four current and former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials including Stephen Busch.

In a meeting in March 2014, O’Brien along with Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright and drain official David Jensen urged then-Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, future EM Gerald Ambrose, Mayor Dayne Walling, utilities administrator Daughtery Johnson and Howard Croft, the city’s director of public works, to hold off operating the plant. But O’Brien said Croft insisted the plant was ready ready to go.

The Flint officials were told “this was not the only option, that they did not have to make the switch on that specific date,” he said. “At that point is when Darnell Earley looked at each of the staff, looked at Howard Croft...Howard Croft stated, ‘We have all of these things taken care of.’”

All the men said after the moment that “this was a good deal for the city of Flint, he said.

Earley and Croft have charged with involuntary manslaughter and other charges connected to the Flint water contamination and the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014-15.

O’Brien said he asked Busch why the department allowed the city to activate the Flint Water Treatment plant and “his reply to me was that he was directed” to by someone higher up.

But the Genesee official emphasized the treatment plant wasn’t up to standards and lacked the staff to do it right.

“Was the plant at the time you went through it, the Flint Water Treatment plant, in your expert opinion, was the plant ready to be turned on?” asked Special Prosecutor Todd Flood.

O’Brien responded, “At the time I went through it, no,” O’Brien said.

Then Flood asked if the plant was ready to be turned on “to produce water for the people in this courtroom to drink,” O’Brien testified, “at the time, no.”

Cross examination will begin Friday. But Busch attorney Deday LaRene constantly objected to Flood’s questions throughout the hearing with 67th District Court Judge Jennifer Manley overruling most of them.

As for his interactions with at least three defendants in the case, O’Brien said they would casually discuss “how’s Flint doing” because he was meeting with them regarding Genesee County’s own design of a water treatment plant.

The water plant did not have a “looping” system, which helps “predict the impact on which chemical reaction may or may not occur” in a water system, he said, adding the facility needed at least 90 more days to possibly get ready for use when he toured it.

“What I would say is that the treatment plant had a higher chance of system failure than a normal, fully functional water treatment plant,” O’Brien testified about Flint’s facility.

The preliminary exam hearing is for water regulators Busch, Michael Prysby and Patrick Cook as well as Liane Shekter Smith, the fired former head of the DEQ division responsible for overseeing Flint’s water source switch.

Shekter Smith and Busch each had a charge of involuntary manslaughter added in June 2017. Attorney General Bill Schuette accused them and others of failing to alert the public about a 2014-15 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area that killed 12 people and sickened another 79 individuals.

Cook, a water treatment engineer, is accused of misconduct in office, conspiracy to engage in misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty for allegedly manipulating a Lead and Copper Rule report on the levels of lead in Flint’s water.

Prosecutors also have accused Prysby and Busch of “willfully and knowingly misleading” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulators and the Genesee County Health Department about the treatment of Flint’s river water. The drinking water became contaminated with lead after it wasn’t treated with corrosion-control chemicals, according to a task force appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Prosecutors for Attorney General Bill Schuette says the next witness will be Michael Glasgow, Flint’s utilities administrator.

Glasgow pleaded guilty in May to a reduced charge of willful neglect of duty, a one-year misdemeanor, in exchange for his testimony and cooperation in Schuette’s investigation.

The case is before 67th District Court Judge Jennifer Manley.

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