Snyder defends environmental director on Flint crisis

Chad Livengood, and Jim Lynch

Detroit — Gov. Rick Snyder on Monday defended his environmental department director’s handling of the Flint water crisis, but said he’s asked for a report on how the agency didn’t detect lead-leaching corrosion in the city’s aging pipelines.

Dan Wyant, director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, said late Sunday that staff members applied the wrong standards of the federal Lead and Copper Rule that governs testing and monitoring for drinking water.

The result was that proper controls regarding corrosion were not put in place when the city began drawing its water from the Flint River in the spring of 2014, Wyant said.

“The staff made a mistake in terms of some of the classifications that really put a different set of criteria on it — and that was a mistake,” Snyder said Monday in an interview with The Detroit News Editorial Board. “So we’re taking remedial action to address that.”

Wyant is reassigning Liane Shekter Smith, chief of DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, to another position with the state’s environmental agency. Smith will be replaced by Jim Sygo, chief deputy in DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.

Snyder was asked why Wyant still has a job after elevated levels of lead were found in the blood of Flint children, which caused the state to help pay for switching Flint last week back to Detroit’s water system.

“I think (Wyant) took some action with respect to his staff,” he said. “But as a practical matter, the people that are first being addressed are the people that had a knowledge and expertise to understand those issues. But we’re still looking at all of that.”

“But Dan Wyant’s done a great job in responding to all of that. So I appreciate all of Dan’s hard work.”

Snyder said he has asked for an “after action report” on the decision-making that went into Flint switching from Detroit water temporarily to the Flint River until a new regional water pipeline could be built. Flint started getting water again from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department on Friday.

“We’ll look at all of those questions,” the Republican governor said.

Wyant’s actions come after months of rising concerns among Flint residents over the safety of their drinking water. They followed the recent release of inter-agency communications through a Freedom of Information Act request about Flint’s situation that demonstrate confusion behind the scenes.

State officials seemingly failed to heed repeated warnings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as far back as February about potential problems with Flint’s water system.

Communications released this week between the federal agency and DEQ also show how an environmental law designed to protect the public allowed the government to use questionable water testing practices and move slowly in addressing problems, all while remaining “in compliance” with regulations.

Research by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards’ team on Flint’s water has directly challenged many of the state’s assertions in recent months. Edwards made the original FOIA request and received the corresponding documents first. DEQ officials later released those documents to the media.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said he has read some of the records that have been unearthed and he found the response of several DEQ employees “troubling.”

“It appears … folks were more concerned about protecting their jobs than they were about protecting folks in my community,” Ananich told The Detroit News on Monday.

Ananich has called on the Republican-controlled Legislature to launch its own investigation into the DEQ’s role in the Flint water crisis.

Problems began with Flint’s water in the spring of 2014, when the city switched to Flint River water. Resident complained the tap water had strange coloring, smell and taste.

In the last month, those concerns were dramatically heightened by studies that show lead levels in some children have risen since the switch from Detroit’s water system. Those studies showed that, in some areas, lead levels in children’s blood samples have doubled and, in two ZIP codes, tripled.

In a Feb. 27 email to two DEQ staffers, Miguel Del Toral, regulations manager for EPA’s Region 5, warned Flint’s water wasn’t being sampled correctly.

“If systems are pre-flushing the tap the night before collecting … samples … (MDEQ still provides these instructions to public water systems) this clears particulate lead out of the plumbing and biases the results low by eliminating the highest lead values,” Del Toral wrote in the email.

“The particulate lead is being flushed away before collecting compliance samples which provides false assurance to resident about the true lead levels in the water.”

Another problem was that Flint and the state did not provide required “optimal corrosion control” — water additives that prevent lead from old plumbing and service lines from leaching into the drinking water.

An April 24 email from one DEQ staffer stated bluntly: “Flint is currently not practicing any corrosion control treatment at the water plant.”

On Sunday, Wyant said staffers applied standards of the Lead and Copper Rule that were designed for populations below 50,000. Flint has a population of roughly 100,000, which triggers a different set of criteria and includes performing two six-month testing programs of local water to determine proper corrosion controls.

“None of the DEQ staff in this division had ever worked on a water source switch for a community of over 50,000 people,” Wyant said. “It’s increasingly clear there was confusion here, but it also is increasingly clear that DEQ staff believed they were using the proper federal protocol and they were not.”

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