Emergency Managers, Flint, Rick Snyder — October 20, 2015

The colossal failure and scandal of the Snyder administration in preventing the lead poisoning of Flint residents

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In April of 2014, under the direction of Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, the City changed the source of its drinking water from the Detroit water system (drawing from Lake Huron) to the Flint River. The move was touted as a cost-saving measure which would save $7 million annually. However, there were problems from the start. High levels of bacteria in the Flint River water lead to over-chlorination which, in turn, lead to illegal levels of trihalomethanes, a disinfection by product that can, over time, “cause liver, kidney or central nervous system problems and an increased risk of cancer”.

From there, things got worse. Much worse.

Due to different water chemistries, the Flint River water began to leach out lead from archaic pipes in Flint’s water distribution system. By November, people began to show elevated levels of lead in their blood:

LeeAnne Walters’ four children started getting sick around November of last year. Her 14-year-old, J.D., was in and out of the hospital, and her four-year-old twins, Garrett and Gavin, would get scaly, itchy rashes whenever they took a bath. “I could see the water line on Gavin’s stomach,” Walters says. In February, the pediatrician wrote a note to the city saying that Gavin, who has a compromised immune system, couldn’t consume the water.

City officials came out to test the Walters’ tap that same month and found lead levels at 397 parts per billion. For reference, anything greater than 15 ppb — what the Environmental Protection Agency considers an acceptable level—can result in irreversible damage to a child’s brain. In fact, the EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree there’s no truly safe lead level. […]

A blood-lead level of five micrograms per deciliter or higher indicates lead poisoning. Four-year-old Gavin’s level was 6.5. His mother complained to the mayor’s office, which did little to address the problem. Finally she found someone who would listen: Miguel Del Toral, a groundwater and drinking-water regulations manager with the EPA.

When presented with the evidence (and with some digging himself), Del Toral wrote an interim report to his boss explaining why the agency should take over Flint’s water management. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wrote off Del Toral as a “rogue” employee.

As late as September of this year, state officials were still claiming there wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t until early October that a public health emergency was declared, over a year and a half after Flint residents began to be exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water.

Darnell Earley contends that he’s not responsible (he left as Emergency Manager in January of this year) because the decision was made before he got there:

“The decision to separate from (the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) and go with the Karegnondi Water Authority, including the decision to pump Flint River water in the interim, were both a part of a long-term plan that was approved by Flint’s mayor, and confirmed by a City Council vote of 7-1 in March of 2013 — a full seven months before I began my term as emergency manager. […]

“It did not fall to me to second guess or to invalidate the actions that were taken prior to my appointment.”

This is, of course, a disgusting effort to shirk blame. Earley was sent to Flint to fix problems with their government. Things that happened while he was the state-appointed overseer are his responsibility whether he likes it or not. And if it wasn’t him, it was his predecessor, Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz, who signed the decision to make the change.

At the end of the day, of course, the mistakes made by Flint’s Emergency Managers are the responsibility of Gov. Rick Snyder and his administration.

Yesterday we learned that the Snyder administration knew of the elevated lead levels as early as February of 2015:

The federal government told the state more than seven months ago that the chemistry of Flint River water was apparently causing transmission pipes to leach contaminants such as lead into city water, according to emails among environmental regulators.

But the state Department of Environmental Quality continued to operate under the incorrect assumption Flint wasn’t required to develop and implement plans for controlling corrosion, something the agency didn’t acknowledge was a mistake until Monday, Oct. 19.

This means that the Snyder administration knew Flint citizens were being poisoned for 7 months before taking “quick” action by agreeing to pay for Flint to be returned to Lake Huron water supplied by Detroit.

The person most culpable for this travesty is Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant. Yesterday Wyant went public with his mea culpa:

The head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said federal rules governing drinking water weren’t followed properly in Flint, where problems with lead prompted officials to declare a public health emergency.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant has admitted mistakes were made during Flint’s water crisis.

“We’re recognizing today use of that protocol was a mistake,” Wyant said.

Officials declared a public health emergency in Flint after problems with lead were discovered in the city’s water supply from the Flint River. […]

“We thought the rules were being followed and our staff believed in what they were doing and they thought they needed two different tests, but the reality is we needed to be using a different protocol,” Wyant said.

Wyant said DEQ staff used a federal protocol to test the water.

But now it turns out that protocol is not effective for cities with a population of more than 50,000 people.

“They just didn’t recognize the particulars of the rule that said 50,000 and above more corrosion control is needed. We’ve got to build that experience with corrosion control into the staff,” Wyant said.

After acknowledging mistakes were made, the DEQ said it’s now making changes including replacing the departments municipal drinking water official.

“We are putting an interim, Jim Sygo, our chief deputy and we have an action plan that we think will bring back confidence in the Flint drinking water system,” Wyant said.

Far too little, far too late.

The Michigan Democratic Party and Progress Michigan are calling for Wyant to be fired.

“This was not an issue of experience and protocol,” said Brandon Dillon, Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. “It is a question of competency and judgment. DEQ employees were not provided with the leadership and training necessary to do their jobs in this situation, and Mr. Wyant clearly lacks the judgment needed to do his.

“You don’t get to learn on the job when it comes to the well-being of Michigan’s children and families. You may be able to fix the problem of Flint’s drinking water going forward, but the damage done to the health of thousands of Flint’s children is irreversible. For months, warnings from the EPA about the safety of Flint’s water system, sent directly to DEQ, were repeatedly ignored. That’s not just a glitch in the system, it’s an institutional failure caused by incompetence and a lack of leadership.

“Making sure things are done correctly from now on does not erase the negative effects from mistakes that were already made. If you put the lives of children at risk, you don’t get a do-over, and you certainly don’t get a second chance to do it again. Mr. Wyant, and everyone involved in the catastrophic decision-making involving Flint’s drinking water, should be removed from their jobs immediately. Governor Snyder has the power to do that and the responsibility to protect the citizens of Michigan. The questions of competency and judgment are now his to answer.”

Progress Michigan issued this equally scathing statement via their executive director Lonnie Scott:

You can’t simply reshuffle some staff at the department to make up for poisoning thousands of Flint children. When families and kids are told their drinking water is safe and it’s actually filled with toxins, someone needs to be held accountable. It starts at the top with Wyant. He needs to resign immediately or Gov. Snyder needs to quickly show him the door. This crisis was allowed to fester and grow under his watch and Wyant needs to go. Families in Flint deserve to know that Gov. Snyder is taking this problem seriously and is willing to take serious action.”

Meanwhile, the ACLU, local groups, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have sent a petition to the EPA asking them to take over the management of Flint’s water:

“I just find it flabbergasting that city and state officials could take as shoulder-shrugging attitude as they did,” says Erik Olson, director of the health and environment program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The state, under mounting pressure and press attention, has finally started to get involved in a more serious way, but clearly there’s still an urgent need for the federal EPA to step in.”

The ACLU, local groups, and the NRDC sent a petition to the EPA asking the agency to take over Flint’s water management, echoing the suggestion made by Del Toral last June. The agency has yet to respond, leaving the same people in Flint who created the problem in the first place in charge of fixing it.

“If a landlord with no training in public health doesn’t inform a tenant of a lead hazard, they can and have been sent to jail. That’s how seriously society takes this issue,” Edwards says. “So what should be the fate of someone paid to do a specific job of protecting the public from this neurotoxin and they fail? If we’re going to throw a landlord in jail … how can you not hold these guys accountable?”

I cannot recall an instance in my lifetime where an entire city’s population was poisoned with a tasteless, odorless, powerful toxin thanks the actions of their state government that knew what was happening for MONTHS before any action was taken. This will become the legacy of Rick Snyder and his administration. It’s obscene. It’s a scandal. And people should go to prison.

THAT is how you hold these guys accountable.

  • Patti

    Snyder and his corporate cronies callously and without a care in the world poisoned the water of an entire Michigan city. And they did this to save money. They should be in jail. Every last one of them. They are destroying this state one city at a time all to enrich Devos and the 1%. I hope the EPA and every agency possible steps in and makes them pay for it. Send them to jail, get rid of the EM law, and force Snyder’s corporate cronies to foot the bill.

  • If only Michigan had a Constitution that stated The public health and general welfare of the people of the state are hereby declared to be matters of primary public concern. The legislature shall pass suitable laws for the protection and promotion of the public health.
    And that 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.

    A *functional* constitution, supported by a constitutional administration. If only…sigh.

    • judyms9

      If only is right. With the Republicans business has and will always come first. Water will become important only when private businesses can make deals to sell Michigan water to drought plagued parts of the nation and world. Thank goodness they think they’ve found water on Mars. Elon Musk can’t get us there fast enough, and leave the despoilers here in the mess they’ve made.

  • gravyrug

    Switching back to Lake Huron water is a temp fix at best. What’s being done to replace those pipes? What is it in the Flint River that leaches lead from them, and does that indicate there might be an issue with the ecosystem of the river? Yes, the pols in charge need to go, but that’s only the first step in what looks like a very long process to actually fix the problems.

    • Left Coast Tom

      I agree. I debated whether to post this or not, as I have with other posts on the topic of Flint’s water – it’s true, is a decades long problem, but there’s an immediate crisis. And, with the latest information, it appears the “crisis” was one of state officials not giving a damn when the EPA told them, correctly, what was happening months ago. Disgusting.

      But yes, the Flint River drainage remains the backup supply, and it’s been proven that the backup cannot safely be used without further action.

  • bryan

    WHAT??

    Earley: “It did not fall to me to second guess or to invalidate the actions that were taken prior to my appointment.”

    Wrong. In fact, that is EXACTLY what the Emergency Manager is there to do.

    The EM is sent in when “actions that were taken” have led to a financial emergency — and the EM is there to undo those actions, and other actions, and replace them with better actions that lead to better results.

    Disingenuous? Darn right. And this “not my fault” attitude is learned from the guy at the top.

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