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Flint — A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water expert testified Wednesday that Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials told him that Flint was not treating its water with anti-corrosion controls as he warned them it wasn't safe.

Miguel Del Toral, the EPA's Region 5 regulations manager, began looking into water quality issues in Flint in February 2015 after a resident called to alert him to high lead levels in her home.

DEQ water treatment engineer Patrick Cook told Del Toral about the water treatment plant issues, the EPA expert said. Del Toral met with then-DEQ official Liane Shekter Smith at the Chicago EPA headquarters to discuss the issue as well — with him saying each time Flint was not meeting federal standards.

And Del Toral said he was "very surprised" at the lack of corrosion controls and no plans to implement them.

"I was informed by Patrick Cook via email that the city of Flint did not continue using corrosive control treatment after they disconnected from Detroit (area water)," Del Toral said. "Because the city of Flint has lead service lines and in the absence of treatment to lower lead levels within lead service lines, they can get very high."

Del Toral was testifying before 67th District Court Judge Jennifer Manley at the preliminary exam hearing for DEQ water regulators Stephen Busch, Michael Prysby, Cook as well as Shekter Smith, the fired head of the DEQ division responsible for overseeing Flint’s water source switch. This is the first Flint preliminary exam where Del Toral has been asked to testify.

The state regulators have been charged with various criminal offenses, including misconduct in office.

Shekter Smith and Busch are each charged with involuntary manslaughter. Attorney General Bill Schuette accused them and four others of failing to alert the public about a 2014-2015 outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area that killed 12 people and sickened another 79 individuals.

Del Toral, who manages water regulations for the EPA based in Chicago, was the latest witness to testify for Special Prosecutor Todd Flood against them. Much of Del Toral's testimony was technical and often interrupted by objections from defense counsel.

The EPA water expert was considered the agency's Midwest whistle-blower on Flint's lead-contaminated water. In a June 2015 email, he pleaded with superiors to protect Flint residents from lead contamination and even asked for permission to do additional water testing in Flint on his own dime to prove his assertions of widespread lead contamination.

“I understand that this is not a comfortable situation, but the State is complicit in this and the public has a right to know what they are doing because it is their children that are being harmed,” Del Toral wrote in a June 2015 memo to EPA officials. “At a MINIMUM, the city should be warning residents about the high lead, not hiding it telling them there is no lead in the water.”

EPA District 5 Director Susan Hedman asked for a legal opinion about whether the agency could intervene in Flint and didn't receive an answer until November 2015 — after Michigan recognized the crisis in October 2015. Hedman retired after The Detroit News published a January 2016 story about her delay in seeking action. 

Under questioning in court, Del Toral said he first became aware of the Flint situation from resident LeAnne Walters, not from DEQ officials. Busch told Del Toral that the lead problem wasn't with the city's service line but with Walters' pipes and that she needed to call a plumber.

But Del Toral said Busch's assertion was "misleading" because she had all plastic pipes in her home.

Walters reached out to Del Toral because lead levels in her home were high and he and another colleague were set to visit her home in April.

"When I see numbers that high, usually they're indicative of lead service lines," he said. "And so my concern was that she had high lead coming off her services lines."

Del Toral will continue his testimony from Flood and then under cross examination on Sept. 19.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming

 

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