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Independent report confirms state made mistakes, but not “intentional” ones in Flint water crisis

Tap water in a Flint hospital on Oct. 16, 2015.
Joyce Zhu

Preliminary findings from Michigan’s independent Auditor General give more details about the Flint water crisis.

In a letter to State Senator Jim Ananich, Auditor General Doug Ringler answers several key questions about the state’s role in the decision to switch to the Flint River and how Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality dealt with those decisions.

Ringler’s review confirms it was the state appointed emergency manager who made the decision to switch to the Flint River, not city leaders. It also confirmed that Detroit’s water system made offers to keep Flint as a water customer, but that a different emergency manager rejected those offers.

The report says Flint’s Water Treatment Plant was upgraded in the 1990s to treat Flint River water as a backup source in case of emergencies. But the city “did not test the water's effect on the distribution system at consumer tap locations.”

The distribution system is where the lead in people’s tap water came from. Water experts say testing before a major switch is a common and important best practice.

Ringler’s review also confirmed that Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality made mistakeswhen it applied the federal Lead and Copper Rule to the Flint River switch.

MDEQ staffers treated the switch to the river as a new water source, not a new water system. They mistakenly believed that two 6-month testing periods were needed to determine if corrosion control treatment was required.

Assuming the DEQ’s flawed method of applying the Lead and Copper Rule, the report notes the DEQ should have notified Flint in March of 2015 that it would need to start corrosion control treatment to keep lead levels in the water lower. But the MDEQ didn’t do that until August 2015, after the second testing period was finished.

The review notes MDEQ staff did not ask the federal Environmental Protection Agency how to properly apply the Lead and Copper Rule in the case of Flint’s switch to the river. “DEQ believed it had appropriately applied the LCR requirements of a large water system” based on past experience.

Based on the review of federal and state rules, and a clarifying memo from the EPA, Ringler writes, “We believe that corrosion control treatment should have been maintained.”

When the EPA first asked the MDEQ if Flint was using corrosion control treatment, state officials said it was. But later, it wrote that Flint was not using such treatment. The Auditor General’s investigation shows this was a misunderstanding.

“Based on our review of this and other e-mails, we have no specific reason to believe that MDEQ willfully misrepresented the information to the EPA,” Ringler wrote. "We did not note any instances of major infractions (i.e., intentional disregard of policies, laws, regulations or specific directions) committed by DEQ staff during the course of our review.”

“What the intent was, whether it was purposeful or not, isn’t as important to me as the glaring systematic problems that we’ve seen,” State Senator Jim Ananich said.

Ananich says it’s alarming no one within MDEQ seemed to see there was a lead problem, despite numerous red flags. He says the report shows the state bears responsibility to help Flint children who were exposed to lead in drinking water.

MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel declined an interview, but said in a written statement that the department agreed with the Auditor General’s findings.

“The findings align with our internal department review. We appreciate the Auditor General’s work to provide a fair and well considered look at some key issues,” Wurfel wrote.

The report also found that it was appropriate that the state invalidated two water samples that tested high for lead. The EPA has not commented on this, because it is still conducting its own investigation.

The report also confirmed that the DEQ relied on information from Flint officials to show that all the homes it sampled were the ones it was supposed to; homes with lead distribution pipes.

Flint is still working to figure out exactly where those homes are.

But the auditor notes that Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality could’ve verified the information Flint provided to make sure the samples and the tests were in compliance with federal rules.

The state didn’t ask for that information until last month,long after Flint officials admitted they didn’t know where those lead pipes are, and reporters asked why the state hadn’t followed up. 

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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