As the water crisis has unfolded in Flint over the past few months, there has been an enormous amount of finger pointing and blame shifting going around. Just this week, Darnell Earley wrote an op-ed piece for The Detroit News absolving himself of any of that blame, despite the fact that he or one of his predecessors was in charge when the decision to switch the City of Flint from Lake Huron water via the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the Flint River. In fact, the decision to move to Flint River water despite an offer by the DWSD to remain on their system was made by Earley himself.
Unfortunately for the residents of Flint, the water chemistry of the Flint River was substantially more corrosive than the Lake Huron water and, over time, it degraded the biofilm on the insides of water lines and then slowly began to leach lead into the water. This led to officials calling a health emergency in Flint and a subsequent return to obtaining water from the Detroit system while a pipeline now being built to supply Flint Lake Huron as part of a regional water authority is completed.
To make matters worse, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has now admitted that they were following the wrong testing protocols for a city the size of Flint. Had they followed the correct protocols, the problem would have been discovered much sooner.
Throughout the decision-making to remove Flint from the Detroit system, Mayor Walling has been the mayor. However, he had little authority to do anything since, until January of this year, he was only the de facto head of the city. Prior to that, state-appointed Emergency Managers were in charge.
UPDATE: The ACLU produced this short video covering the issue who was culpable for the switch to Flint River water and showing how placing the blame on Flint officials is ludicrous:
I sat down with Walling this week to talk about the multiple government failures that led up to the water crisis his city is facing and the role played by the State of Michigan itself along with the Emergency Managers that have been running the show on and off for more than decade.
Let’s go back to the time when the when the discussion first started about switching away from Detroit water, how that conversation got started and who started that conversation. How did it get to the point where that decision was made by the City Council?
There was an aspiration in Flint for a long time to find an alternative to being the last customer in the Detroit system. The Detroit system’s costs are based on distance and elevation so, depending on where you are in the service network, your cost actually varies. So Flint and Genesee County always paid a higher cost for Detroit water than anyone else who was serviced by that system.
How long was Flint on the Detroit system? When did you start?
We’ve been on the system for over 40 years.
When I came into office in 2009 there was a renewed discussion of a “I-69 regional pipeline” that would connect Flint and Genesee County and Lapeer and Sanilac, out to the same Lake Huron water that supplies the Detroit system. Five communities, the three counties – Genesee, Lapeer, and Sanilac Counties – as well the City of Flint and the City of Lapeer all came together and created the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA).
When was this happening?
This was in 2010 and I and the City Council were a part of that. We always said during those discussions that we were forming the Authority and then each community would take a look at the economic analysis to see if it made sense to actually contract for water services. That discussion was very far along when the first Emergency Manager was appointed in 2011.
The Emergency Manager then reviewed the same analyses that I and City Council were looking at of three possible permanent sources: the Flint River, the new pipeline, or staying with Detroit. It became clear to the Emergency Manager at the time, Mike Brown and then Ed Kurtz, that the most affordable, most secure option for the City of Flint would be to contract with the new pipeline. It fixes the cost of water. The City is on the Board and has the ability to make decisions as part of the regional authority.
It was determined at that time in the winter of 2013 that, because this was a 30, 40 year contract, that the Emergency Manager actually bring it to myself and City Council which was unlike all of the other decisions that were being made. The City Council voted 7 to 1 and I pledged my public support.
This is late March of 2013, correct?
The financial analysis we were provided with at the time showed that the City would stay on DWSD until the switch was made to the new regional authority and that was the public discussion. There was discussion of the river, not as an interim source, but as a permanent source and that option was discarded. It was something I was never in favor of.
Why was that?
There were primarily two issues. One, the Department of Environmental Quality did not believe that the volume of the Flint River was sufficient for it to be a permanent supply. The other one was that it was hard to treat and it was not, when you look at affordability, security, dependability, even though it was less expensive than Detroit, it didn’t have the other characteristics.
At the time were you aware that you’d need to do more corrosion treatments because of the chemistry of the Flint River water?
Yes, that was actually in the technical analysis that had been done in 2011. It wasn’t yet an approved treatment schedule but it did list the likely treatments as a means of estimating the cost so that that could be fully understood.
And that included corrosion treatment?
It did, yeah. And I think that everyone knew that the City’s long-term supply for water would certainly involve corrosion control. So, that was all part of the discussion. It came to City Council and I from the Emergency Manager’s recommendation, and was supported by City Council and myself as going to the new pipeline for a long-term supply.
So that sort of contradicts what Darnell Earley said in his piece that, that this was a done deal when he got here and he just did whatever you guys said to do.
Darnell Earley wasn’t here at the time.
Ah, right. That was Ed Kurtz
But Darnell Earley has been commenting on what happened six and seven months before he was appointed and the fact of the matter is that the resolution was only for the permanent supply and the financial projection which was to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, it had the City paying for DWSD until the switch was made. There was no discussion of the river as an interim source. City Council and I pledged our support. It went all the way up to the governor who supported the City going to the KWA based on all the financial and environmental analyses that had been done.
Not long after that decision was signed by the Emergency Manager who was Ed Kurtz at the time, the City received notice from DWSD that…
You’ve got one year.
Right. You’ve got one year. And that was appropriate under the contract. DWSD had no more of an obligation than that year.
Did you anticipate that that might happen?
There were comments that it might. I personally felt like, after forty-some years of being a customer and the fact that we’re paying a premium for being the farthest customer away, that Detroit would want the infusion of Flint and Genesee County’s $30 million a year.
But, we got the determination notice and this is where Flint under an Emergency Manager and the County with the County Drain Commissioner went two different ways. The County Drain Commissioner’s office communicated with Detroit. They came to an agreement so that the County customers could stay on the Detroit system. However, the Emergency Manager – Kurtz, Brown for a couple of months again, and then Earley – implemented the plan for the City to use the Flint River with close coordination from the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Before the switch was made, I understand, based on FOIA’ed documents obtained by the ACLU, DWSD did come back to Flint and say, “You can stay on until you hook up to the pipeline. And that was rejected by Darnell Early, the Emergency Manager in 2014.
He declined the offer to keep selling them water saying, and I’m quoting here, “The Flint water treatment plant will be fully operational and capable of treating Flint River water prior to the date of termination.” So he declined that offer. That suggests to me that this idea he’s putting out there that he’s not culpable in any of this is not an accurate statement.
The issue with the lead, was that anything that was anticipated or was that a surprise to people, that the water chemistry of the Flint River was going to remove the biofilm off the insides of the pipes and begin to leach lead into the water? Was that anticipated or was that a surprise?
It was a surprise to me. I know NOW looking at the documents, the emails that have come out through the Freedom of Information Act that there were discussions with the EPA staff and MDEQ staff about that fact.
Prior to when lead problems started occurring?
Yeah, months before.
So, there was some anticipation of this problem by at least some parties…
Right. And I know that the City staff raised questions about a whole number of aspects of the treatment process and every single one of those treatment ingredients has to be approved by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The position from the State was that the City had to go through creating a baseline and do the two rounds of tests of households and those results would lead the MDEQ to make a determination of the City’s use of the additional phosphate corrosion control.
That came to the City of Flint in late March of 2015. The City pledged to implement that as fast as humanly possible.
This is after lead had been identified as a problem at this point.
Yeah. And the Virginia Tech team was doing a larger sample size and a different test methodology that was showing a higher level of lead in the water. For me, it was the presentation of data from doctors at the Hurley Medical Center who looked at internal data that they had from tests that had been performed and the scary reality that more children were testing with elevated blood lead levels since the switch to the Flint River than had been previously. That’s when it shifted from meeting requirements of water treatment to the public health concerns and then the City issued the lead advisory while the County Health Director took time to further analyze the data and, just a few days later, issued the County-wide health advisory and then a few days after that the County health emergency.
But the City took action as soon as the Hurley doctors made us aware. We pledged to work with them over the next couple of days to come out with an advisory that was appropriate and acceptable to the medical community. We did that and we released it.
Then, just a couple of weeks ago, the State Director of Environmental Quality admits that the guidance that the City was relying on from the State the entire time was wrong. Now it’s clear that this was not an unintended consequence of existing laws. This was a wrongful action by the State in not requiring the City, while under an Emergency Manager, to actually follow the lead and copper rule.
How much of that responsibility lies with the local folks and how much with the State folks? How would you characterize that? Is following these rules regarding testing and stuff the responsibility of the State or is it the responsibility of the local officials and staff who run the water treatment plant?
That’s why the City is going through an internal review because I do want to understand in greater detail the discussions that took place about the different treatment processes that were in place. But, I know that the authority to permit water treatment for drinking water is held by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Whether the City staff discussed it five times or fifty times or a hundred times, the authority for approving it is with the State and they require that the City go through these two rounds of tests. And it’s now known that that was wrong. So, I see the responsibility at the State level. Our local community has gone way above and beyond. Doctors at our public hospital, on their own time, analyzing test results and bringing it to the attention of myself and Senator Ananich and other members of the Greater Flint Health Coalition, community activists who have been raising this issue for some time, working with Virginia Tech and Dr. Mark Edwards.
In retrospect, all those yellow flags were there. The City relied on assurances from the Department of Environmental Quality that we were meeting the standards, we were complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act and Lead and Copper Rule when, in fact, it wasn’t.
You had a problem you didn’t know about because the testing wasn’t being done properly.
Yeah. Exactly. And the corrosion control, the additional corrosion control should have been required to be in place from the very beginnging. So, the State was not prepared to implement the Emergency Manager’s proposal for the City to go to the Flint River.
There have been accusations that people raised complaints early – like October, November of last year – to your office, to the City government and they were ignored. How would you answer them?
There were complaints and I took time to address those cases as best as I could. The City relied on the information from the Department of Environmental Quality. We had the violation of the total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) and that was being addressed by the carbon filter and adjustments in the treatment process. It was actually August in 2015 that we received a notice from Department of Environmental Quality that the City was back in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Meanwhile, we know now, the City was out of of compliance from the beginning with the Lead and Copper rule because it was being misinterpreted by the State.
I do think that our community leaders, our health leaders, they went above and beyond and that’s what brought the issue up for attention. That’s a big reason why the governor had to come and pledge resources for us to switch back to Detroit. The attention forced an examination up and down the chain, emails have now been released, and we all know that the EPA staff were providing concerns to the State Department of Environmental Quality. The local community was providing concerns and the whole time, including myself, that the City is complying and the water is meeting the standards.
The over-chlorination, how did that happen? Was that a local mistake or was that again something that was coming down from the DEQ?
There was additional chlorination that was done after the boil water advisory was necessary from an elevated bacteria level. It happened at a time when the river water was warm and that combination of warmer water and higher chlorine led to the speak in TTHMs. But, just another example of the problem of information not being shared throughout this time period was that I wasn’t made aware of the high TTHM results until it got to a point where the public notices was going to have to be issued. So, all throughout the fall of late 2014, you had the Public Works Director and the Emergency Manager receiving information that wasn’t being shared with myself and City Council.
As soon as that public notice went out then that’s when action was taken. We pressed for the budget changes for the carbon filter and for the Commmunity and Technical Advisory Committees because the community had been locked out of that whole process.
Yesterday I got an email from a group called TURN who said they are adding you to their lawsuit against the State and a number of individuals, including the governor’s spokesperson, for some reason, the Emergency Managers, etc. They say that you should have been more forceful more early on you didn’t stand up for the people. One of their representatives said today, “You did not speak for us and you were not honest with us.” How do you answer them?
I was honest with all the information that I had throughout the whole process. And any time I understood there was an issue, I took action. The TTHM issue got resolved with the addition of the carbon filter and the changing treatment processes. As soon as I was aware of the recommendations of the Department of Environmental Quality on corrosion control, I committed to making that happen as fast as possible. I made an additional call to the State to replace lead service lines because, ultimately, this problem doesn’t go away. The lead needs to be removed from the distribution and service line system.
I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this issue and I am very concerned about how our children and schools have been affected. I look back and wish that the City would never have been forced down this road. I raised a lot of concerns here at City Hall and in my discussions with staff and the Emergency Managers. I did do everything I could once the budget and plan was set for that to work. I hoped that the facts we were getting from the State about the quality of the water and how it was being treated that that was reflective of some progress, that our Public Works Department had made.
I feel misled by the State Department of Environmental Quality. Even with the Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level, there needed to be more aggressive communication. I reached out to the White House in January of 2015 because I wanted a direct line to the EPA. While staff were apparently having discussions among themselves with the DEQ, those concerns weren’t coming to me from the regional administrator of the USEPA.
So, I was asking questions. I was asking for information. And I was being told by people in authority who had the ability to regulate the City’s drinking water that it met the standards and, whatever the next issue was that had to be addressed like the TTHMs and the carbon filter, we had action plans in place for the issues that came up. It’s just really tough to look back and see the government failures that led to the crisis that we’re now experiencing.
One of the things TURN is criticizing you for is going on television and drinking water and telling everyone that it was safe. What brought that to be? What were the circumstances where that happened?
I do a weekly show with our CBS affiliate and that was one of the many points where there were questions about what’s happening with the water. It was early July 2015 and my family and I, we drink the water every day, so it wasn’t to put on a show. They said, “You’ve said the water meets the standards and we’d like you to drink a glass of water that we take from the water fountain,” and I did. I commented that it’s got a little chlorine taste but it’s just like standard tap water because that’s what I understood. I relied on the information from the State that it was being treated to meet the standards. I knew we had made a great reduction in the amount of TTHMs because I was now watching those numbers on a monthly basis.
It was such a disappointment that throughout the whole time that assurances were being given that the water didn’t meet the treatment standards because the Lead and Copper Rule wasn’t being applied properly.
This testing, this isn’t just testing the water coming out of the plant, right? The water coming out of the plant can be perfectly fine but as it travels through the various piplelines, that’s when it picks the lead up. So this testing involves going into people’s homes and collecting their tap water. Is that correct?
RIght. There are daily tests done at the plant itself and that’s part of the monthly operating report that we make available publicly now. That was one of the changes in January of 2015 with the TTHM notice. Then we have quarterly tests that include the TTHMs from a select number of sites across the City, and, finally, the lead and copper-related tests which are required by the State under these two six-month tests which are done on water collected from actual residential households throughout the city.
How big of an area are we talking about that’s affected by this?
It’s a city-wide problem. What you have to understand is that there are a lot of different risk factors that go into what’s coming out of a tap. You have the service line running from the water main to the home which may be lead or copper. There are about 15,000 lead service lines in the City. We have about 30,000 customers. Then once it comes into your home, whether or not you have copper pipes with lead solder or whether you have plastic pipes. Even old fixtures, the actual faucet itself in some homes may have some lead content in it. All of those things in a City like Flint where we have older houses and fixtures and pipes that haven’t been updated, all of that plays into the risk that any one household might experience which is why, as soon as this was all identified, the recommendation was there to have your own household tested. Because it may be different than even your neighbors.
You need to use a faucet filter, if possible, for drinking water. And, certainly, flush your system for few minutes which brings the water from the main distribution into your faucet. There is no lead in the distribution system. There’s no lead in the river water itself. It’s the interaction between the water and the service lines.
What’s next? Are people able to drink the water yet?
We’ve made the switch to the Detroit water system and it’s going to take between two and three weeks for that water to fully replace all the river water in the 600 mile distribution system.
600 miles. Wow.
From Flint to New York City, that’s how much water pipe we have. So it takes a few weeks with our usage for that to completely turn over. We’re doing assessments when that’s in place. Beyond that it’ll be a month or more before the actual biofilm protection is reestablished throughout the system, so that’s another thing we have to access.
That biofilm provides a protective coating that isolates the lead from the water?
Yes, so there’s less exposure.
That means as a customer, as a family in the city, we’re asking everyone to continue to use a faucet filter. To have their household tested so they understand the plumbing and the service lines that you have in your own home. And at least a flush for five minutes in the morning so that water’s not stagnating in the system. That’s a lot for a customer to have to go through. I mean, the problem has to be fixed. The commitment of State resources for us to go back to Detroit is just a down payment. There’s tens of millions of dollars that will need to be invested in Flint to deal with the corrosion of pipes, the replacement of service lines, and the health effects on our children. It’s going to take years for this to be fixed.
Flint isn’t the only city dealing with lead service lines, I assume. This probably a bigger problem than just Flint, correct?
Yeah, it’s a much bigger problem because even communities that have the additional corrosion control would have households that have compounded risks. When the Hurley doctors came forward, my immediate concern was how is this affecting a young mother who is nursing who is mixing tap water with formula, you’re working two jobs, it’s the middle of the night, and you know you’ve not been advised not to use hot tap water to mix your formula, but, you know, you do anyway because it’s two in the morning and you’re not really thinking about it. So, then that infant gets exposed to a higher level of lead in drinking water than even may be picked up if a community was doing the samples. Because there’s going to be a higher risk in a household that’s not using as much water because of the high cost, that has older fixtures, and lead service line…
That’s why we now have to work through a comprehensive plan to fully address the problem. Switching back to Detroit is just the beginning of what needs to be done in Flint to address the water problems.
Do you see this as a sort of hidden problem that other cities don’t realize they have because they’re treating the water?
The biggest hidden problem is what’s happening in schools because the Safe Drinking Water Act does not require testing, I’ve now learned, in schools where the municipal water system is being tested. But, again, the problem is how the water interacts with the older lead and copper pipe systems. So, if you’re on Detroit water in a metropolitan Detroit community and you’re using water every day and it’s circulating through your system, then the test that those communities are publishing are probably representative of the risks. But if you’re a four-year old in a Headstart program in an older school building, the water in those pipes is not turning over every day, likely. It’s sitting there all weekend then kids are coming in and using the drinking fountain or filling a water bottle. Those risks are going undetected in Michigan. So there are a lot more safeguards that need to be put in place and then they have to be enforced by the State Department of Environmental Quality.
Are there any silver linings here? Do you think there’s anything good that will come out of it?
The problems in Flint have brought to light the bigger issues with municipal drinking systems, especially in older communities where there are large number of lead service lines and homes with lead from other sources where you have these compounded risks. If the State is ready to be truly responsible, you’ll see mandatory testings in schools, going above and beyond the Safe Drinking Water Act. There will be quarterly test disclosures so even if an Emergency Manager is in place, the person can’t hide the information from the community while people are actually drinking the water without knowledge of the risk. There has to be more testing, more transparency, and more funding to actually fix the problems.
Last question: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in terms of this situation?
From what I know NOW, the City should never have switched. I’ve thought over and over again about what I knew at every step and the actions that I took to respond to the information that I had. I just don’t know how much more I could have done as a mayor when the experts at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the appointed Regional Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are providing guidance to the City that we’re meeting standards and that actions will be required in the future as those test results are analyzed. I have a different perspective now on the regulatory environment.
UPDATE: I have been informed that the protective coating on the insides of the piping that prevents lead leaching is actually called “mineral scale”. While biofilm does coat the insides of piping, it is the mineral scale that is the chief barrier that prevents lead from being leached into the water supply.