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.