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Sorting out accountability in Flint water issues is "relatively complex"

Protesters in Flint.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

In Flint, lead levels in some children's blood have spiked dramatically, and scientists believe a new drinking water source is to blame. They're pointing to lapses in oversight from state regulators, who they say should’ve seen the problem coming.

Flint’s water problems began about a year ago, not long after the city stopped drawing water from Detroit’s system. To save money, Flint began getting its water from the Flint River.

But since the switch, doctors and researchers say cases of elevated blood levels in kids under five have doubled in some parts of the city. Lead can cause irreversible health damage, especially in young children.

“It was not my decision. I raised a number of concerns about it throughout the process,” Flint Mayor Dayne Walling has said.

He was mayor when the city switched from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River.  But Mayor Walling wasn’t in charge.

“The governor has a substantial responsibility here,” he said.

Gov. Rick Snyder had appointed an emergency manager to run Flint.

By law, Michigan cities in danger of going bankrupt can get emergency managers--who have all kinds of power that elected leaders don’t. In Flint, they decided the city couldn’t afford Detroit’s water bill anymore.

The city had been planning to join a new county system, which is under construction. State bean counters decided the Flint River could do until then. 

Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards says Michigan’s environmental regulators should have known Flint’s new water source was much more corrosive than the water Detroit piped up from Lake Huron.

He says testing the water in the lab would’ve been a good start. Other consultants I spoke with said setting up a small scale, mock system inside Flint’s water plant would have been a wise move. That would have given them a test period with the new water source before switching the whole system.

Edwards, who’s been studying lead in water issues for decades, says Flint should also have had a corrosion control plan in place to treat the water, so that it didn’t leach lead from old pipes.

“How on earth this was allowed to happen, or people believed it was ok for it to happen, I don’t even know where to get started on that,” Edwards said last week.

In February, officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found lead levels at one woman’s home that were high enough to be considered toxic waste.

Edwards says that should’ve set off alarms for state regulators.

“Instead what they did is they took action after action to cover this problem up, and essentially leave Flint residents in harm’s way. So at some point what might be attributed to an honest, perhaps innocent mistake...it changed into something completely different,” Edwards said.

Emails show concerned federal officials asked the state if Flint was treating to control corrosion. State officials said yes. When the EPA asked what kind of treatment, there seemed to be a reversal. One email says plainly: “Flint is currently not practicing corrosion control treatment.”

When asked if Flint broke federal rules by not having a corrosion control treatment plan, the U.S. EPA said the question was “relatively complex.” Emails show at least one EPA employee believes Flint was required to treat the water to help prevent lead corrosion. But EPA spokespeople haven’t been willing to say, plainly, that Flint broke federal rules.

Here’s the written response from EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman:

“Actions that the State of Michigan and the City of Flint announced (Friday) are important steps to protect public health. The immediate steps being taken to implement corrosion control will reduce lead in drinking water, as required by the Safe Drinking Water Act. US EPA will continue to provide technical assistance to the State of Michigan and the City of Flint to support their joint effort."

On Friday afternoon, protestors lined up outside a university building, where city and state officials announced their latest plan to fix Flint’s water.

“We survived bacteria. We’ve had boil-water advisories as a result. They put too much chloride in the water. And it’s just been one disaster after another,” Flint resident Claire McClinton said.

Elizabeth Taylor, another Flint resident, places blame on Gov. Snyder. Why?

"Well, because he put us in this emergency manager situation. They just do whatever he tells them to do," Taylor said.

Taylor is disappointed no officials have been willing to "man up and apologize."

"These men, they’re just like...excuse me, but it's like their genitalia have fallen off. They have nothing left in their brains. And you can’t run a city or a state like that. They have to be more responsible," she said.

Inside the building, state officials made yet another reversal, telling reporters that, actually, Flint has been treating the water for lead.

“State government, and the federal government for that matter, or any government, can only make decisions on the information we’ve got,” Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Brad Wurfel said.

“We’ll also concede that we’ve been learning as we go. So as we’ve learned more, we’ve changed paths here,” Wurfel said.

Now state officials say they’ll start a new corrosion control treatment plan for Flint by next month.

Until then, they’ve budgeted $1 million to give people free lead filters for their homes.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Radio’s Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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