Auditor general findings set off Flint water debate

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Findings compiled by Michigan’s Office of the Auditor General have set off another debate about who is to blame for Flint’s 18-month-long water crisis.

Two state lawmakers are blaming Flint’s contaminated water on state environmental officials based on the auditor general’s letter. A state spokesman, however, said the findings of state Auditor General Doug Ringler merely confirm what has already been reported.

The document, a set of answers to detailed questions from Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, and Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, was released late last week. On Monday, Ananich and Sheldon charged state officials with being behind the 2014 decision to have Flint change the source of its drinking water to the Flint River from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s Lake Huron.

“This is another example of how the state failed, initially, and continues to fail, by not treating this situation like the emergency it is,” Neeley said in a statement. “We need answers, we need action and we need them sooner rather than later.”

In the letter, though, Ringler indicates that when Flint and the Detroit water system officials failed to reach an interim agreement on water supply after Flint decided to build its own water authority, “the City of Flint notified DEQ through a permit request of its intent to operate the Flint WTP (Water Treatment Plant) full time using the Flint River.”

While under the control of an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, the city began drawing its drinking water from the Flint River in April 2014. The cost-saving move immediately led to complaints from residents about the taste, color and smell of the water coming from their taps.

In July, August and September, testing results began to paint a darker picture — children in certain areas of the city were beginning to show signs of lead contamination.

The city has since switched back to its previous water supplier, the Detroit water department. A task force is charged with figuring out how Flint’s water situation went wrong, including an examination of how corrosion controls were not used in bringing the river water into homes.

Corrosion controls, like phosphates, are added before water leaves the treatment plant to help coat pipelines to prevent lead from leaching in. Following the switch to the Flint River, no such corrosion controls were added. And many of the questions surrounding the problems in Flint center on who decided to omit corrosion controls.

For months, DEQ officials have been under the microscope for their handling of the issue. Some of the harshest criticism has come from those who believe state workers purposely misled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over whether corrosion controls were in use.

Critics point to a Feb. 27 email from a state employee to the federal agency contending that a corrosion control program was in place. The Auditor General’s report lays out the resulting situation.

■“It appears the EPA interpreted corrosion control program to mean that corrosion control treatment was in place.”

■“On April 23, 2015, the EPA again inquired as to what the Flint WTP was doing for corrosion control treatment.”

■“DEQ responded on April 24, 2015 that the Flint WTP was not practicing control treatment.”

“Based on our review of this and other emails, we have no specific reason to believe that DEQ willingly misrepresented the information to the EPA,” the report reads.

On Monday, Ananich contended the Auditor General findings put the blame on state officials.

“What’s clear is that corrosion control should have been used, and there are serious failings in our system that must be addressed,” Ananich said in a press release. He added that city officials voted in 2013 to switch to the Karegondi Water Authority — a new regional water supply system that is still under construction — but never addressed the issue of using the Flint River.

State environmental and health officials got a measure of support from the office of Snyder, a Republican.

“The letter from the Office of the Auditor General includes some criticisms, but also reflects that state officials were following accepted protocols, or in one case, an interpretation of the corrosion control program that the EPA later clarified,” said David Murray, the governor’s spokesman.

“But we need to do better in ensuring Flint residents have safe water and tracking children affected by elevated lead levels. We continue to work with the bipartisan task force that is reviewing all the actions at the state, local and federal level and is expected to offer recommendations in a month or so. Gov. Snyder is committed to working with Flint Mayor Weaver and officials on these issues.”

On Monday, DEQ Spokesman Brad Wurfel addressed the auditor general’s letter.

“The findings of the Auditor General are consistent with our findings at DEQ in our own internal review,” Wurfel said. “We appreciate their careful consideration of the issues they were asked to look at.”

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Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.