Our Editorial: MDEQ needs culture change

The Detroit News

While Gov. Rick Snyder has apologized for the state’s role in the Flint water crisis and high-level officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) have stepped down, those actions might not be enough change for a department that has clearly proven itself lacking.

The U.S. Attorney’s office is now investigating what happened in Flint, as is the Environmental Protection Agency, though the Justice Department won’t say whether its investigation is criminal or civil. The governor has also declared a state of emergency in Flint in hopes of speeding federal assistance to the city.

The number of children in Flint with elevated levels of lead has more than doubled this year from before the city began using water from the Flint River, an unacceptable increase that developed on the MDEQ’s watch, and while the city was under state oversight.

A report requested by Snyder shows the department made several mistakes that led to the increased levels of lead in the drinking water after the city moved from Detroit’s water system.

Emails released through Freedom of Information Act requests show several MDEQ staffers were talking with EPA officials, who questioned and warned the department about elevated levels in the water. The threat was downplayed department-wide.

That suggests a problem with the MDEQ’s culture that must be addressed.

Emails released also show the MDEQ may have tried to influence the collection of water samples by Flint officials to produce more favorable results. Other emails appear to show employees gave false information on Flint’s corrosion control system, which didn’t exist. It now seems there was confusion between EPA and MDEQ employees, according to a report from the state’s auditor general.

That report said the department, however, was right to throw out several water samples — a contentious point over the past several months — from sources that didn’t meet federal code.

Still, it is disturbing that the department as a whole seems to have ignored or disregarded a number of red flags presented by a variety of sources, including Flint residents, city workers, the EPA and outside researchers.

It will take a long time for Flint to recover from this disaster. The city, already struggling to improve its finances and upgrade its infrastructure, faces more challenges because of the water crisis, and state and federal assistance will be critical.

Additional federal funds could help replace water service lines, expedite upgrades to the city’s water system, and help prepare it for pumping water from its next water system.

There should also be restitution and ongoing support for children who suffer health problems from elevated lead levels.

It is good that the governor is engaging in getting that help to Flint families.

But he also faces the challenge of making sure the MDEQ is working in the best interests of state residents. Those staffers who ignored the building crisis in Flint, or tried to downplay it, must be held accountable.

The state’s own investigation of what happened in Flint must focus on the systemic changes that are needed at the MDEQ to trust it with the future health and safety of all Michigan residents.