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EPA audit reveals "significant challenges" to Michigan's drinking water program

Water faucent in Flint.
Mark Brush
Michigan Radio
Water faucet in a Flint home.

Michigan’s drinking water regulators need more resources to do their jobs correctly. That’s one of the major takeaways of a detailed federal audit released Thursday afternoon.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched the audit almost two years ago, right after the state at least started to acknowledge that there was a serious problem with Flint’s drinking water.

Auditors found Michigan regulators did not follow certain provisions of the Lead and Copper Rule, which aims to reduce lead in people’s tap water. They found Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality didn’t fully enforce the rule in Flint and statewide.

MDEQ didn’t always issue violations when water systems exceeded levels of certain drinking water contaminants. They found MDEQ didn’t have a strategy to compel water systems to get back into compliance.

The EPA found what’s been generally known about the Flint water crisis -- that MDEQ failed to “properly oversee and manage” the city’s switch to the Flint River as a drinking water source. Specifically, the audit says the state should have required the city to study the water source before the switch and to maintain corrosion control treatment. It also says the state failed to issue Flint a violation for turning in lead in water sample reports late and didn’t have “the required management approval” for invalidating samples with high lead levels.

More than anything, the audit highlights the state's need to invest in more staff and overhaul its antiquated technology systems.

More than anything, the audit highlights the state’s need to invest in more staff and overhaul its antiquated technology systems.

The EPA suggests a system where water-sampling data results upload automatically from the state’s lab and other labs into the state’s electronic database. This is “critical” for the MDEQ to get timely notification and to warn “the public of potential health issues.”

Eric Oswald, the new drinking water division director in Michigan, has said previously that hiring more staff and investing in updating technology is a top priority. He says it’s frustrating his staff have to enter water sample data into a computer by hand.

“We really waste a lot of time handling data that should be input into a system once. We input it two or three times and each time you handle data there's a chance to make mistakes,” he said.

Oswald is also looking to hire more people.

The audit says the division lost a lot of experienced staff in 2010 and 2011 when the MDEQ was merged with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and then split back off.

“Due to downsizing, (full time) position limits, retirements, and significantly reduced funding, resources became increasingly tight” in 2012 and 2013, the audit says.  

Now, Oswald says there are quite a few people who are on the cusp of retiring.  

“In the next couple of years we're going to lose some key folks that we need to make sure we replace,” Oswald said. “The whole force structure, how many people we have, what the skill level is of those folks; we need to pay attention to that.”

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