Shakeup roils DEQ in wake of Flint water crisis
Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality remained in flux Wednesday after a change in leadership at the top and ongoing questions about whether any rank-and-file staffers may get disciplined because of the Flint water contamination crisis.
Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh became the interim head of the DEQ on Wednesday after Gov. Rick Snyder accepted Tuesday the resignation of agency director Dan Wyant — just over five years after he was named to the post. Creagh’s former deputy, Bill Moritz, is taking the reins at the DNR.
It is unclear if additional personnel changes are in the offing for the DEQ after an independent review panel singled out the agency as having “primary responsibility for what happened in Flint.” The city’s drinking water has prompted a year and a half of complaints about the odor, taste and smell, as well as the findings in August of elevated lead levels in some of Flint’s children.
On Wednesday, a Snyder spokesperson would say “There will be other personnel changes at DEQ, but those are not resolved yet.”
Some of the harshest critics of the DEQ’s handling of the Flint water situation have said Wyant was hamstrung by bad information provided to him by subordinates.
Creagh’s interim appointment is a natural move because the Natural Resources and Environmental Quality departments used to be a single unit before the Republican governor separated them when he took office in 2011.
Snyder has vowed to search for a long-term replacement to lead the environmental protection agency. Wyant’s departure was applauded by some critics and came on the heels of problems with lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water after the city switched its source to the Flint River from the Detroit water system’s Lake Huron for cost reasons.
The water switch by Flint, which was run by a state-appointed emergency manager from December 2011 until April, was meant to buy time until the city could finish a new regional authority in 2016. The stakes rose dramatically in August and September when testing and health studies showed a link between the switch to the corrosive river water and a rise in lead levels in the blood of city children.
Flint reconnected to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and Snyder soon appointed a Flint Water Advisory Task Force to evaluate what went wrong. The task force sent Snyder a summary of its findings Tuesday that zeroed in on the Department of Environmental Quality’s handling of the switchover.
“Although many individuals and entities at state and local levels contributed to creating and prolonging the problem, (DEQ) is the government agency that has responsibility to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan,” the task force summary reads. “It failed in that responsibility and must be held accountable for that failure.”
Task force members highlighted several areas where state oversight of the Flint situation failed.
■DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance focused too much on “technical compliance” with the federal Lead and Copper Rule. The mindset resulted in a “failure to recognize a number of indications that switching the water source in Flint would — and did — compromise both water safety and water quality.”
■DEQ’s public response to rising concerns among Flint residents and researchers was characterized by task force members as one of “aggressive dismissal, belittlement and attempts to discredit these efforts and the individuals involved.” The department “seems to have been more determined to discredit the work of others — who ultimately proved to be right — that to pursue its own oversight responsibility.”
■DEQ staff members were also identified as being behind a decision not to provide immediate corrosion controls, such as phosphorus, to prevent lead from leaching into the water, during the switch to the Flint River. “The decision not to require (corrosion controls) ... led directly to the contamination of the Flint system,” according to the initial report.
Chris Kolb, a task force co-chair and president of the Michigan Environmental Council, said after Wyant’s Tuesday resignation that the DEQ’s faulty approach in some areas was glaring.
“The key reality is that no one seemed to have asked the question, ‘What happens if we don’t continue using corrosion controls?’” Kolb said. “If someone would have asked that question and thought about it, the answer would have been ‘You’ll see corrosion and the leaching of metals into the water’ — exactly what you saw in Flint.”