2 DEQ employees suspended over Flint water crisis

Chad Livengood, Jonathan Oosting, and Jim Lynch

Lansing —Two Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees were suspended without pay Friday for actions related to the Flint water contamination crisis, Gov. Rick Snyder said.

The state workers, who are not being named but work on drinking water issues, were notified of their suspension Friday, said Department of Technology, Management and Budget spokesman Kurt Weiss. They will face an investigation prior to any additional discipline, including possible firing.

“Michiganders need to be able to depend on state government to do what’s best for them, and in the case of the DEQ that means ensuring their drinking water is safe,” Snyder said in a statement. “Some DEQ actions lacked common sense and that resulted in this terrible tragedy in Flint. I look forward to the results of the investigation to ensure these mistakes don’t happen again.”

Civil Service Commission rules prohibit the state from immediately firing classified civil service employees. Instead, workers can be suspended without pay for up to seven days while the state investigates their conduct, Weiss said. The probe could take weeks.

The suspensions came after Snyder, in a Friday morning appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” had criticized DEQ personnel without mentioning any state employees by name.

“The department people, the heads, were not being given the right information by the quote-unquote experts, and I use that word with great trial and tribulation because they were considered experts in terms of their background, these are career civil servants that had strong science, medical backgrounds in terms of their research,” Snyder said. “But as a practical matter, when you look at it today and you look at their conclusions, I wouldn’t call them experts anymore.”

Earlier this week, new DEQ Director Keith Creagh said “common sense” should have dictated that corrosion controls be utilized from the outset of Flint’s source switch. But he has said that under the vague wording of the Lead and Copper Rule, the state’s initial interpretation may have been “technically” allowable.

The unnamed staffers were the first state government workers suspended for their roles in the Flint water crisis.

DEQ Director Dan Wyant was forced to resign in late December after a Snyder-appointed task force concluded DEQ was “primarily responsible for failing to ensure safe drinking water in Flint.” As of mid-October, Snyder was publicly defending Wyant.

DEQ’s communications director, Brad Wurfel, also resigned on Dec. 29 after the task force said the department displayed a “dismissive and disrespectful tone” to data from researchers outside state government who discovered lead in Flint’s water and the bloodstreams of the city’s children.

Two other DEQ employees in the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance have been reassigned as a result of the agency misinterpreting federal regulations on toxic metals in water.

In mid-October, Wyant reassigned Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Chief Lianne Shekter-Smith to another job. Stephen Busch, the office’s Lansing and Jackson district supervisor, has also been reassigned.

“It’s a huge bureaucratic problem, and it’s part of the problem with culture in government,” Snyder said.

There are efforts underway to bring in third-party experts to evaluate the environmental agency’s water testing procedures and change the “culture,” he continued.

“This is something that we don’t consider just what one person did, let’s look at the entire cultural background of how people have been operating,” Snyder said. “Let’s get in there and rebuild the culture that understands common sense has to be part of it, taking care of our citizens has to be part of it.”

The Flint water contamination crisis has also prompted changes at the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman resigned Thursday and EPA administrator Gina McCarthy asked the agency’s Office of Inspector General to evaluate the Region 5 public water supervision program.

During the MSNBC interview, Snyder rejected a charge by critics that his administration would have responded more quickly to Flint’s water problems dating back to April 2014 if the city predominately African-American and low-income city were rich and white.

“Is this a case of environmental racism?” Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski asked.

“Absolutely not,” Snyder responded. “Flint is a place I’ve been devoted to helping. ... We’ve done a lot in terms of programs there to help the structurally unemployed go get work, in terms of public safety we’ve done a lot. Healthy Michigan was a whole Medicaid expansion and many of those people getting the greatest benefit are people in places like Flint and such, because they deserve better medical care.”

The Republican governor added: “What’s so frustrating and makes you so angry about this situation is you have a handful of quote-unquote experts who were career service people that made terrible decisions in my view and we have to live with the consequences with that. They work for me, so I accept that responsibility.”

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