Flint, Guest Post, Rick Snyder — October 7, 2015 at 12:06 pm

GUEST POST: The catastrophe of Flint’s water crisis falls squarely on Gov. Rick Snyder and the MDEQ


The following post was co-authored by David Holtz, the Chair of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, and Anne Woiwode, the chapter’s Conservation Director. As leaders of one of the primary watchdog groups in Michigan when it comes to water quality, I asked them to weigh in on the ongoing crisis with Flint’s water supply. In their essay, Holtz and Woiwode pin the blame for this outrageous catastrophe squarely on Gov. Rick Snyder (via his state-appointed Emergency Manager in Flint who made the decision to switch from Detroit city water to Flint River water) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), the state agency tasked with ensuring all Michiganders have access to safe drinking water. I completely concur.

As Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich put it, if this had happened in a wealthy community like Bloomfield Hills or Birmingham, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion because this situation “would have been resolved a long time ago.” In Flint, however, the state is putting a Band-Aid on a gaping, gushing wound by handing out a million dollars worth of water filters. “To me, the cost-benefit analysis that has cost on one side and brain damage for kids on the other — it’s incomprehensible,” Ananich told MLive.

Meanwhile, Flint residents and their children are still being exposed to dangerous levels of toxic lead in their drinking water.

Here is their essay.

When the definitive story is written about how the state of Michigan’s public health and environmental officials handled dangerously high lead levels in Flint’s drinking water we should know then, for certain, whether any laws were broken.

But this much is known now: lead poisoning causes permanent developmental damage and that hundreds—maybe thousands—of Flint’s children and other residents have high levels of lead in their bodies. We also know we can trace this public health crisis to a decision by a state-appointed Emergency Manager in April 2014 to switch to corrosive Flint River water for public consumption.

Sierra Club’s Michigan Conservation Director Anne Woiwode, whose environmental and public health work spans three decades, has described the Snyder administration’s handling of Flint’s drinking water crisis as “one of the most disturbing issues I’ve seen in my career.”

Sierra Club has called on Gov. Snyder to initiate an independent investigation into the handling of Flint’s pubic health crisis and to immediately switch back to the Detroit water system until the connection to Lake Huron through the Karagondi water system is complete and proven to be safe. The Michigan ACLU and others have petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency to take over enforcement of federal drinking water laws in Michigan from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) which has badly mismanaged the crisis and appears to have actually made it worse.

Michigan’s ACLU deserves credit for unmasking the lead problem in Flint and prioritizing public health. But ACLU’s spotlight has also revealed seriously questionable behavior from within the MDEQ, all of which is documented in extraordinary disclosures at flintwaterstudy.org.

Perhaps many officials can be held accountable for the decision to switch away from the Detroit system and healthy water that has served the community for generations. But when it comes to managing the transition to Flint River water, subsequent water quality testing and meeting federal corrosion treatment requirements, responsibility squarely rests with the MDEQ, which is delegated authority for compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. And when it comes to prioritizing the protection of public health, there is evidence of near-total failure by MDEQ officials.

Among the worst revelations from the ACLU is evidence that MDEQ never implemented adequate corrosion treatment of drinking water in Flint despite being required to do so by law. Moreover, the ACLU documents suggest that water testing in Flint measuring lead levels was manipulated, supposedly showing compliance with federal lead standards when, in fact, lead levels actually exceeded the 15 parts per billion threshold.

One measure of just how far MDEQ was prepared to go in quieting what it called “near hysteria” over poisoned drinking water in Flint came when the agency began trashing scientists and doctors.

Writing to a Flint Journal reporter, DEQ communications director Brad Wurfel attacked national drinking water expert Marc Edwards’ stunning findings confirming dangerous and illegal high levels of lead in the Flint’s drinking water:

…the state DEQ is just as perplexed by Edwards’ results as he seems to be by the City’s test results. When I said we were unsure how the Virginia Tech team got its results, that’s not the same as being surprised that they got them. …this group specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go. Nobody should be surprised when the rabbit comes out of the hat, even if they can’t figure out how it is done…..while the state appreciates academic participation in this discussion, offering broad, dire public health advice based on some quick testing could be seen as fanning political flames irresponsibly. Residents of Flint concerned about the health of their community don’t need more of that.

Even after Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Hurley Medical Center researchers documented that rising levels of lead in Flint water were linked to increased blood lead in Flint’s children, MDEQ’s Wurfel called the study “unfortunate” if not quite “irresponsible.”

That was on September 28. At the same time his administration was publicly throwing cold water on the problem, Gov. Snyder was quietly providing water filters to Flint religious leaders for distribution. Then four days later Wurfel’s boss, MDEQ Director Dan Wyant, was standing with state public health Director Steve Lyons in Flint promising a state response after Governor Snyder—while still refusing to acknowledge any mistakes—admitted to “serious concerns” about the safety of Flint’s drinking water.

Handing out water filters in Flint and requiring more testing doesn’t nearly go far enough, however. The clear answer to addressing the lead threat is to change back to a safe drinking water source: Detroit’s water system. No matter what, the dangerous corrosion of lead pipes in Flint will likely linger for some time. As will the corrosion of credibility of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

  • J/Stormy

    The fact that a state surrounded on all sides by the greatest freshwater resources in the entire world can’t (by which I mean *won’t*) provide clean, reliable drinking water to two of its largest cities just makes me unreasonably pissed off.

    • Not so “unreasonably” in my estimation…

  • bryan

    I heard Marc Edwards interview on Michigan Radio’s Stateside last week and was shocked at what he said about the “handling” of the LCR report.

    At 12:21 of the interview, Edwards responds to “why did your Virginia Tech team have such different results in Lead tests in the state?”:

    “Well, actually, they’re not that much different, because when we found the original Lead and Copper Rule report, they failed the Lead and Copper Rule…. What’s different is that we didn’t take the high lead results and cover them up…. They [MDEQ] took action after action to cover this problem up and essentially leave Flint residents in harm’s way.”

    Hear the interview: http://michiganradio.org/post/whos-blame-flints-water-crisis-virginia-tech-researcher-points-finger-mdeq#stream/0
    Read Edwards’ blog post: http://flintwaterstudy.org/2015/09/commentary-mdeq-mistakes-deception-flint-water-crisis/

    The buck stops at Snyder, but it needs to take out all the fraudsters along the chain. They represent a “culture” in state government that is life-threatening.

  • Left Coast Tom

    First priority must be getting a healthy primary drinking water source for Flint, which at this point obviously means Lake Huron. And the state should help with this because the state’s emergency manager was the decision maker here.

    After that’s done…

    Even before the switch, Flint’s backup water supply was the Flint River – for decades, that was the backup plan. It’s completely obvious that Flint, for decades, never had a plan for how they would deliver healthy water from this backup supply. It may be that, despite improvements, the watershed still has major problems that should have been resolved, but weren’t. It may be that Flint officials, for decades, never paid proper attention to their own backup supply. And it’s clear that Flint was negligent in allowing lead supply lines in the first place, just as the emergency manager was negligent in not considering the presence of those lines in evaluating water source options.

    After Flint switches to Lake Huron water, the backup supply plan remains the Flint River. And, in any case, the Flint River flows into Lake Huron, so the problems just flow downstream anyway. So, take care of the immediate problem now, but don’t consider the overall problem solved.

  • “The conservation and development of the natural resources of the state are hereby declared to be of paramount public concern in the interest of the health, safety and general welfare of the people. The legislature shall provide for the protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state from pollution, impairment and destruction.”
    Art. 4, sec. 52, MI Constitution

    Why is the Flint River so out of whack when keeping it clean is constitutionally mandated? Could the republicans be selective in their reading of the state constitution?

    • It’s not pollution that’s the issue. It’s water chemistry. The water chemistry of the Flint River is much more corrosive to lead than Detroit River water and that’s what’s leading to the lead contamination. It’s leaching lead out of the pipes in a way that the Detroit water didn’t.

      When they first switched over it was a bacteria issue but that can happen with any natural surface waters.

  • Tom from Mt Morris

    The history of Flint has a history of
    ups and downs. Being the birth place the union is both up and a down. On the
    upside it was a part arsenal of democracy and made a contribution to General
    Motors, making General Motors the largest WW II defense supplier. In 1955 in
    had its highest GM employment at 82,186 on the down side in 2015 it is ~7,500.
    In 1955 time frame Charles Stewart Mott bribed University of Michigan president
    Harlan Hatcher in having a presence in Flint with Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.
    In 1984 the heydays of supply side economics the Mott Foundation gave 40
    million dollars in backing the defunct Auto World whose site has a metamorphosis into University of Michigan – School of Health Professions and Studies. The Flint Journal buildings had metamorphoses into the New Farmers’ Market and the Michigan State College of Human Medicine. Hence the current water crisis is just a part of the hysterical rollercoaster ride of Flint. There are people who say we should not assign blame and just solve the problem. I am for assigning blame. I just got my statement from my brokerage house and I am becoming as impoverished as Flint school child. If all I am going to do is clean up after a parade of elephants, I might as well get a job at the circus and drop my memberships to Physicians for Social Responsibility, ACLU, Michigan Peace Alliance, Sierra Club, Flint River Watershed Coalition and the Michigan Association of Retired School Personnel.