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Former head of Michigan’s drinking water unit first to be fired in wake of Flint water crisis

Larry Caruso
The News-Herald http://thenewsherald.com/

Liane Shekter-Smith, the former head of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance unit, was fired today. A handful of officials have resigned since the Flint water crisis came to light, but this is the first time anyone’s been fired over it.

Governor Rick Snyder’s office put out a written statement saying Shekter-Smith was “officially terminated” Friday. It does not list the exact reasons for her termination.

“Putting the well-being of Michiganders first needs to be the top priority for all state employees,” Snyder said the written statement. “Anything less than that is unacceptable. The DEQ is working to change this culture and ensure mistakes that endanger our residents don’t occur again.”

Shekter-Smith apparently played a role in MDEQ misinterpreting federal rules that required treatment to prevent lead from leaching from old pipes. MDEQ told Flint it didn’t need to add that treatment until it tested the water over the course of a year.

Last fall, MDEQ’s former director, Dan Wyant, told reporters Flint was using lime for corrosion control treatment. But a few days later, Shekter-Smith told Michigan Radio’s The Environment Reportthere was no corrosion control plan.

“At the time they proposed switching to the Flint River and implementing the lime softening treatment method, there was an indication that the pH control provided by that method perhaps would provide optimal corrosion control,” Shekter Smith said.

It’s clear that method, if it counted as a plan at all, didn’t work.

Emails show Shekter-Smith was aware of the U.S. EPA’s concerns about lead in Flint’s water throughout the summer of 2015. In July, she asked the EPA to say, in writing, that Flint’s water was in compliance with federal rules limiting lead in water.

“This would help distinguish between our goals to address important public health issues separately from the compliance requirements of the actual rule which we believe have been and continue to be met in the city of Flint.”

The EPA declined.

The governor’s office says the departmental review of a second MDEQ employee, who sources say is Steve Busch, is ongoing. Busch was the supervisor of one of DEQ’s eight district offices within the department’s drinking water program. He was suspended for seven days without pay, but is now getting paid until the investigation is complete, per state civil service rules.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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