The email trail of the latest workers charged in the Flint water crisis
The latest criminal charges to flow from the Flint water crisis accuse state health and environmental workers of withholding or altering data on elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint children, and of failing to take corrective action once the poison danger became apparent after the state switched the city’s water supply from Detroit to the Flint River in April 2014.
The six, from the departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services, show up repeatedly in government emails collected and chronicled in Bridge Magazine’s comprehensive timeline of the water crisis.
Bridge has plucked some key timeline excerpts relating to the actions of the six, who were charged Friday by Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office. The names of the six charged are marked in boldface.
January 23, 2013: Email from MDEQ’s Mike Prysby to colleague Liane Shekter-Smith and others about feasibility of Flint switching to the Flint River… “I agree that the city should have concerns of fully utilizing the Flint River (100%) for the following: the need to soften, the potential for more advanced treatment after next round of crypto monitoring, available capacity in Flint River at 100-year low flow, residuals management (disposal of lime sludge).”
March 26, 2013: Email from Stephen Busch (MDEQ) to MDEQ Director Dan Wyant with Liane Shekter-Smith and other MDEQ staff copied. Key points – warnings about Flint River water quality. The memo is written “in preparation for a call” same day with the office of State Treasurer Andy Dillon:
“All contract options with DWSD that are considered semi-competitive with the KWA contract do not fully supply the City of Flint, and would require the City of Flint to meet a significant, if not majority, of its water demands by treating water from the Flint River. Continuous use of the Flint River at such demand rates would:
- "Pose an increased microbial risk to public health (Flint River vs. Lake Huron source water)
- "Pose an increased risk of disinfection by-product (carcinogen) exposure to public health (Flint River vs. Lake Huron source water)
- "Trigger additional regulatory requirements under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.”
April 16, 2014: Warning from Michael Glasgow, a water treatment plant operator for the City of Flint, to Adam Rosenthal at MDEQ:
“I am expecting changes to our Water Quality Monitoring parameters, and possibly our DBP on lead & copper monitoring plan… Any information would be appreciated, because it looks as if we will be starting the plant up tomorrow and are being pushed to start distributing water as soon as possible… I would like to make sure we are monitoring, reporting and meeting requirements before I give the OK to start distributing water.”
April 17, 2014: Warning from Flint Water Treatment Plant’s Michael Glasgow to Adam Rosenthal, Mike Prysby, and Stephen Busch at MDEQ:
“I assumed there would be dramatic changes to our monitoring. I have people above me making plans to distribute water ASAP. I was reluctant before, but after looking at the monitoring schedule and our current staffing, I do not anticipate giving the OK to begin sending water our anytime soon. If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple of weeks, it will be against my direction. I need time to adequately train additional staff and to update our monitoring plans before I will feel we are ready. I will reiterate this to management above me, but they seem to have their own agenda.”
October 13, 2014: “General Motors said it will no longer use the river water at its engine plant because of fears it will cause corrosion” due to high chloride levels. GM instead buys Lake Huron water from Flint Township. (As reported by MLive.com.)
October 13, 2014: Email from Mike Prysby to Busch, Shekter-Smith and others at MDEQ… Inquiry from Ron Fonger at Flint Journal concerning GM getting off Flint water. Prysby notes that Flint water is elevated for chlorides but downplays the issue… “although not optimal” he said, it’s “satisfactory…” “I stressed the importance of not branding Flint’s water as ‘corrosive’ from a public health standpoint simply because it does not meet a manufacturing facility’s limit for production.”
October 21, 2014: Susan Bohm of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services alerted officials in Genesee County in an email that there were concerns that Flint’s water would be linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a pneumonia that can be caused by inhaling water vapors, according to emails obtained by the Detroit Free Press. In 2014, Liane Shekter-Smith, the head of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance for the state Department of Environmental Quality, had contacted state health officials “a couple of times” to discuss the outbreak, the emails show. “She was concerned that an announcement was going to be made soon about the water as the source of the infection; I told her the Flint water was at this point just a hypothesis,” Bohm wrote in an email.
January 7, 2015: Email from Richard Benzie to MDEQ colleagues Mike Prysby, Liane Shekter-Smith and Stephen Busch. The mail discusses Benzie’s impressions after talking about Flint issues with State Rep. Sheldon Neely (D-Flint) and other legislators:
“(T)hey indicated that based on the number of calls they are receiving and the tenor of the callers, there appears to be a significant (I think they used the word complete) loss of public confidence in the drinking water quality in Flint. Mike indicated that we would be working with the city to try to restore that confidence… Maybe there are some lessons to be learned from how the Lansing Board of Water and Light is trying to recover from the loss of public confidence as a result of their response to the ice storm a year ago.”
January, 12, 2015: Email from Mike Prysby to numerous MDEQ colleagues regarding the provision of “alternative” drinking water supplies to a Flint office building housing state government workers: MDEQ’s Shekter-Smith sends email to numerous DEQ colleagues on January 12: “The decision to provide bottled water when the public notice was not a “do not drink” causes us some concern.”
January 21, 2015: Email from Liane Shekter-Smith to MDEQ colleagues, key point:
“Our position has always been that we do not dictate which acceptable option(s) a water supply may choose. Our responsibility is to see that operations are managed properly, regulations are met, and safe water is delivered. For example, when Flint decided to leave Detroit and operate using the River, our role wasn’t to tell them our opinion; only what steps would be necessary to make the switch.”
January 29, 2015: In response to a Bridge Magazine story about residents’ complaints about Flint water, MDEQ Deputy Director Jim Sygo forwards the story to drinking water chief regulator Liane Shekter-Smith.
Sygo writes that he’s never seen trihalomethane issues (one of the early water safety violations in Flint “cause such discoloration” in drinking water.
Shekter-Smith responds: “I’m theorizing here, but most likely what they are seeing is a result of differing water chemistry. A change in water chemistry can sometimes cause more corrosive water to slough material off of pipes as opposed to depositing material or coating pipes in the distribution system. This may continue for a while until things stabilize. It would be unusual for water leaving the plant to have color like people are seeing at their taps. Generally this is a distribution system problem or a premise plumbing issues. Since it appears wide-spread, it’s most likely a distribution system problem.”
TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: Shekter-Smith’s theories here prove to be quite accurate. As an independent drinking water quality expert, Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards later proves, corrosive Flint River water is breaking down Flint distribution lines. Shekter-Smith is also right that materials are sloughing off the Flint pipes. In fact, those materials include very harmful lead. In essence, Shekter-Smith’s private theories to a MDEQ colleague here are quite consistent with the alarms about pipe corrosion and lead that EPA water expert Miguel Del Toral brings to MDEQ a month later, in February. But for months more, MDEQ discounts and doesn’t react urgently to Del Toral’s warnings – warnings that the one of the state’s top drinking water safety regulators (Shekter-Smith) seems to be beginning to piece together in this email as early as January 2015.
February 26, 2015: Prysby responds to Crooks, with Shekter-Smith and Brad Wurfel (MDEQ) copied, among others… “I recall Adam [Unclear if this is Adam Rosenthal, though Rosenthal worked in Shekter-Smith’s office] showing me a high lead/copper sample result (perhaps it was this one)… as part of the city’s routine lead-copper monitoring. Adam mentioned that all other samples were below the (allowable limit… and the city will not exceed the lead allowable limit. I will confirm this. The city; however, needs to take further action to help address Ms. Walters’ concern. The type of plumbing needs to be identified and sample tap location within the premise plumbing. They should offer to re-sample for PB after flushing the tap to demonstrate that flushing the tap will reduce the lead concentration. The city also needs to provide other lead reduction strategies to Mrs. Walters.”
February 26, 2015: Email from Stephen Busch (MDEQ) to Liane Shekter-Smith and Richard Benzie at MDEQ, in response to Crooks’ email less than an hour earlier:
“As indicated by Mike and Adam [Unclear if this is Adam Rosenthal, though Rosenthal worked in Shekter-Smith’s office] the city is meeting 90th percentile. Not sure why region 5 (EPA) sees this one sample as such a big deal.”
TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: Months later, after the Flint lead water had exploded, an EPA technical report would conclude that “this one sample” as Busch described it, was a very big deal, indeed. “As indicated by the results from the Walters’ home and previous EPA work, the presence of lead pipes over many years has likely resulted in the accumulation of lead in the scales within non-lead pipes downstream of the lead pipe.”
March 12, 2015: Email from Liane Shekter-Smith to numerous MDEQ colleagues on the Legionnaires’ issue:
“While the change in source may have created water quality conditions that could provide additional organic nutrient source to support legionella growth, there is no evidence or confirmation of legionella coming directly from the Water Treatment Plant or in the community water supply distribution system at this time.
“Seems like the next step is to communicate with DCH and possibly develop a joint strategy/response. Not sure who in Exec wants to take the lead on this. Steve Busch and Mike Prysby will continue to be lead for us on this. They have been in contact with DCH recently but only to learn that little progress has been made in identifying a source or sources for the illnesses.”
March 13, 2015: Email from Stephen Busch (MDEQ) to Jim Henry (Genesee County Health Department) with copies to Mike Prysby and Liane Shekter-Smith at MDEQ:
- “The DEQ fully recognizes the public health threat posed to individuals that contract Legionnaires’ Disease with the understanding that the disease is not contracted by ingestion of potable water and therefore not regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.”
- “… (C)onclusions that legionella is coming from the public water system without the presentation of any substantiating evidence from your epidemiologic investigation appears premature and prejudice toward that end.”
- “It is highly unlikely that legionella would be present in treated water coming from the City of Flint water treatment plant given the treatment plant’s use of ozone along with complete treatment and chlorine disinfect contact time to comply with the federal surface water treatment rules for potable water. Detections of total coliform or heterotrophic bacteria in the City’s public water distribution system indicate an environment where bacterial growth may be supported. However, there is no direct correlation that can be made to the presence of legionella… water temperatures in the City’s distribution system are below legionella growth range, and chlorine residual levels would also limit such growth.”
- “Our office agrees that water main breaks, water leaks, and system repairs are possible vectors for legionella to enter the public water system. These should be investigated as part of your epidemiology.”
- “If GCHD is seeking assistance to complete its epidemiological investigation regarding this matter, such resource requests should be directed to the Michigan Department of Community Health. Our Office agrees that a multi-agency partnership would be beneficial to move forward and develop a unified response.”
Shekter-Smith responds same day, with copies to several others at DEQ, including Wurfel and Sygo… “FYI – in case you weren’t bcc’d on this note. Just wanted to make sure we stay on the same page… Nicely done Steve and Mike.”
March 31, 2015: Email from Jennifer Crooks (EPA) to Mike Prysby, Stephen Busch, and Liane Shekter-Smith (all MDEQ), with others at MDEQ and EPA copied. Key points:
- The purpose of Crooks’ email is to summarize a major EPA conference call the previous week regarding Legionella.
- “Check with Mike Glasgow at the Flint Water Treatment Plant to ask about their flushing strategy; what types of flushing they are conducting…”
- “Due to findings by Genesee County Health Dept. that there has been an increase in the incidence of Legionella since April 2014, Genesee County Health Department has FOIA’d the City of Flint for operational data.”
- Darren Lytle, Acting Chief of the Treatment Technology Evaluation Branch of the EPA in Cincinnati is brought to advise on Legionella… “Darren talked about several treatments they have done for Legionella in 2 hospitals.” But in one such case, “they shut down the treatment due to staining of toilets.”
- “Darren said they have been doing studies for Homeland Security, collecting sediments at the bottom of storage tanks. He is finding high concentrations of Legionella in the bottom of the tanks.”
- “Darren said anytime there is a treatment change, issues arise with the drinking water quality. Thus, what does this do to the transport of organisms like Legionella? Does this cause organisms to desorb and go into solution? The changes in water chemistry change these organisms electrostatically, and the biofilms with the distribution system pipe are disrupted and de-stabilize. Thus, different contaminants can be released. So maybe this isn’t happening in people’s homes; but it is happening in the distribution system pipes.”
- “Darren thought that the incidence of Leigonella must be fairly extensive for the County Health Department to notice and study.”
- The regulators on the call discuss gathering “data from past use of Detroit water (March 2014 monthly operation report) and recent monthly operation reports from use of Flint River water… Tom Poy (EPA) said that the Department of Community Health is communicating with the Genesee County Health Department regarding their findings on Legionella.”
- Miguel Del Toral, the EPA regulator who becomes most aggressive in raising major red flags about Flint water, notes on the call that “extensive flushing is going on in Flint to address stagnant water that fosters bacteria problems…. But, stirring up the distribution system lines with flushing is stirring up the sediment in the pipes, and then causes a large chlorine demand, thus decreasing the chlorine residual which good promote the growth of bacteria, such as Legionella.”
- EPA expert Darren Lytle is eager to help. “Darren asked, How can we help? He offered to conduct sampling and analysis for Legionella when it is needed. Tom Poy said the State is currently figuring out a communication-with-the-public plan… Tom Poy said that we are laying a foundation now with the resources for when the State goes public with the issue of Legionella. Darren said that the labs are set-up now ready for Legionella sampling and analysis.”
- “Miguel said that we must look at the overall picture, i.e. is the system causing this increased incidence of Legionella disease? Darren said that first, we must find the source – is Legionella there? If Legionella is present, in the tanks/pipe, then disturbance of changing the water quality and flushing, could cause it to proliferate.”
April 24, 2015: Two months after telling EPA that Flint had optimized corrosion control in place, MDEQ now tells EPA that no corrosion control is in place. (As reported in a December 2015 timeline produced by the Michigan Auditor General.) The March 2015 Veolia engineering report also recommended corrosion control. The issue is discussed in MDEQ emails:
Email from Patrick Cook, a water treatment specialist in the MDEQ Community Drinking Water Unit in Lansing to MDEQ engineer Mike Prysby: “What is Flint doing now (post Detroit) for corrosion control treatment.”
Prysby’s response: “As we discussed, Flint is not practicing corrosion control treatment…”
From Stephen Busch, Lansing District Supervisor of MDEQ’s Community Water Supply Program, to Prysby and Cook: “… (T)here are no additional requirements for the City of Flint based on the levels of lead and copper in the current source water and the results of the lead and copper distribution monitoring… I believe this condition has been met.”
Cook back to Busch: “I agree. I’ll forward this to Miguel (Del Toral at EPA). However, don’t be surprised if you get a call from him disagreeing with our position.”
Prysby back to Cook: “You are correct. I received a call from Miguel regarding his concerns with the lead/copper sampling procedure from lead services and how he believes it is skewing down the lead level results from sites with lead services. I briefed Steve on the call and we can discuss in more detail next Tues.”
TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: At this point, at least three MDEQ drinking water specialists are fully aware of Miguel Del Toral’s concerns about lead in Flint water, questions about the state’s pre-flushing procedure for accurately measuring lead content and the need for corrosion control. These email records show MDEQ takes no immediate action. Multiple MDEQ drinking water regulators discount Del Toral’s concerns at EPA. And MDEQ begin a months’-long, rigid, legalistic interpretation that no additional corrosion control or anti-lead strategies are required under the law in the Flint drinking water system.
April 27, 2015: Email from DEQ’s Steve Busch to Pat Cook regarding Miguel Del Toral’s (at EPA) raising concerns about Flint: “If he continues to persist, we may need Liane or Director Wyant to make a call to EPA to help address his over-reaches.”
April 27, 2015: Email from Pat Cook (DEQ) to Busch/Prysby (DEQ): “Hi Steve – I agree, the constant second guessing of how we interpret and implement our rules is getting tiresome… Any ways, when you have a minute please give me a call so we can figure out how to respond to Miguel.”
May 1, 2015: Pat Cook (DEQ) email to Miguel Del Toral (EPA), with copies to Jennifer Crooks (EPA), Thomas Poy (EPA Ground Water and Drinking Water Branch Chief), Richard Benzie (with MDEQ’s Community Drinking Water Unit) and Stephen Busch (DEQ).
- “The rules you stated below allow large systems to be considered having optimal corrosion control if they have data from two consecutive 6 month monitoring periods that meet specific criteria. (The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance) has not made a formal decision as to whether or not the City of Flint meets the exemption criteria or will be required to do a corrosion control study since Flint has only completed one round of 6 month monitoring. The City of Flint’s second round of monitoring will be completed by June 30, 2015, and we will make a formal decision at that time.”
- “As Flint will be switching raw water sources in just over one year from now, raw water quality will be completely different than what they currently use. Requiring a study at the current time will be of little to no value in the long term control of these chronic contaminants.”
- “Finally, the City of Flint’s sampling protocols for lead and copper monitoring comply with all current state and federal requirements. Any required modifications will be implemented at a time when such future regulatory requirements take effect.”
TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: By this point, at least four technical MDEQ drinking water staff members (Cook, Busch, Prysby, and Benzie), are in some way involved in the MDEQ’s reasoning that no further corrosion control or anti-lead action is required in Flint. This despite Miguel Del Toral’s warnings. And at least two high-level EPA drinking water officials (Poy and Crooks) are made aware of MDEQ’s reasoning. And there’s further evidence in Cook’s emails of a waiting game strategy – regulators appear to be trying to endure the Flint River water situation, regardless of the risks, until the Karegnondi Water Authority comes online in late 2016.
May 11, 2015: Jon Allan, director of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, emails Liane Shekter-Smith (DEQ) for her reactions to proposed language in a report/recommendations Allan is writing…
“By 2020, 98 percent of population served by community water systems is provided drinking water that meets all health-based standards… By 2020, 90 percent of the non-community water systems provide drinking water that meets all health-based standards.”
MDEQ Water Resources Division Chief William Creal responds same day, as he, too, has been copied on Allan’s proposal: “I think you are nuts if you go with a goal less than 100 percent for (drinking water) compliance in the strategy. How many Flints to you intend to allow???”
Shekter-Smith responds a day later, with a completely different reaction: “The balance here is between what is realistic and what is ideal. Of course, everyone wants 100 percent compliance. The reality, however, is that it’s impossible. It’s not that we ‘allow’ a Flint to occur; circumstances happen. Water mains break, systems lose pressure, bacteria gets into the system, regulations change and systems that were in compliance no longer are, etc. Do we want to put a goal in black and white that cannot be met but sounds good? Or do we want to establish a goal that challenges us but can actually be accomplished? Perhaps there’s a middle ground?”
June 30, 2015: EPA Region 5 Water Division Director Tinka Hyde makes MDEQ Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Chief Liane Shekter-Smith aware of the June 24 Del Toral memo. But Hyde does not share the report with Shekter-Smith, Hyde writes in email:
“Once Miguel addresses our comments, we will provide you a copy of that report. In most cases, an internal EPA memo would not be distributed outside the agency, but given his interaction with the homeowner for one of the sampling locations, Miguel has shared a copy of the draft interim report as a courtesy with this Flint resident. Based on Miguel’s initial analysis, elevated lead levels were found at this residence. In addition, it appears that the source of the lead may be from outside the home (note: plumbing in the home is largely plastic.) Please know that Region 5 management is still being briefed on the lead issues in Flint and we look forward to the opportunity to discuss the situation with you in more detail so we can better characterize what MDEQ is already doing in Flint and how public health protection can best be provided to the citizens of Flint.”
Shekter-Smith responds in a July 1 email: “We’ll need to discuss this after we receive Miguel’s report, but before the call later this month.”
TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: We can now add two senior water quality officials at EPA in Chicago and MDEQ in Lansing to the growing list of state and federal regulators who are aware that EPA’s Del Toral is sounding a major alarm about potential lead problems in Flint water. MDEQ’s Shekter-Smith doesn’t get the benefit of the full context of Del Toral’s report, as EPA doesn’t share it with her. But these emails do not imply any sense of alarm on Shekter-Smith’s part. Indeed, now-public email records show no indication that anyone at EPA or MDEQ shares Del Toral’s sense of urgency, or plan – as of June 30 – to act with any urgency to address Del Toral’s concerns. EPA ultimately and officially shares a redacted and final copy of Del Toral’s report with MDEQ four months later, on November 4, 2015.
July 1, 2015: EPA’s Jennifer Crooks sends an email to 18 people to present draft notes of what appears to be a “semi-annual” regulatory overview call on June 10, 2015 between EPA and MDEQ drinking water staff. Not all of the recipients’ affiliations are noted in Crooks’ emails. But recipients include Shekter-Smith, Benzie, Prysby, Cook, and Busch (all from MDEQ) as well as Poy and Del Toral from EPA. Several other MDEQ staffers not previously included in the now-public email correspondence regarding Flint are also copied. Those additional MDEQ staffers include: Carrie Monosmith (supervisor of the MDEQ Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Environmental Health Section); and, Dana DeBruyn, Dan Dettweiler, and Kevin Holdwick (of MDEQ’s Noncommunity and Private Drinking Water Supplies Unit). The draft notes of the June 10 conference call detail a wide range of covered topics, with considerable emphasis on the Flint situation. Key points of the meeting notes, which were authored by an EPA staffer (Crooks), include:
“Our discussions with MDEQ indicate that no phosphates/corrosion control has been added to the system since April 2014 when the source of drinking water changed to the Flint River. We understand that the City is just finishing up its second set of 6-month initial monitoring for lead where the results will probably warrant a Corrosion Control Study to be conducted. Since Flint has lead service lines, we understand some citizen-requested lead sampling is exceeding the Action Level, and the source of drinking water will be changing again in 2016, so to start a Corrosion Control Study now doesn’t make sense.”
“Miguel (Del Toral) believes that lead levels in Flint are being affected by the lack of corrosion control being conducted by the City… Steve Busch stated that in the Lead sampling pool, almost all of the lead sample sites are lead service lines and the State is not seeing large increases in lead levels at the tap.”
(Truth Squad note: The Michigan Auditor General, outside researchers and media reporters soon debunk the assertion that all lead sample sites in Flint are of lead service lines.)
Del Toral wants EPA technical experts added to the Flint situation to deal with lead in the interim… “Steve (Busch) pointed out that the City is following the LCR requirements…” Del Toral is clearly asserting that’s not good enough, but there’s no evidence in the email record that others are clearly backing him up…
“Miguel’s point is that since the LCR was promulgated 20+ years ago, that research and different situations, like Washington, D.C., have educated scientists, experts, and regulators that the existing requirements in the LCR may not be as protective as previously thought. Thus, he can only make recommendations as to how to revise sampling protocols. And Miguel acknowledges that it may be another year before these regulation changes are promulgated in the Long-Term Lead and Copper Rule.”
TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: In January 2016, EPA issued its well-publicized “Emergency Order” regarding Flint Water. The order accused Michigan of “a lack of transparency” and stated “During May and June, 2015, EPA Region 5 staff at all levels expressed concern to MDEQ and the City about increasing concentrations of lead in Flint drinking water and conveyed its concern about lack of corrosion control and recommended that the expertise of EPA’s Office of Research and Development should be used to avoid further water quality problems moving forward.” Not exactly. In fact, this portion of the January 2016 EPA order itself lacks transparency. The above draft notes of the June 10 EPA/MDEQ meeting once again make Del Toral’s concerns clear. But there is no sense in this record that anyone else at either the state or federal agencies share that concern and urgency. EPA issues no orders to MDEQ. MDEQ stands firm in its defense of its interpretation of the Lead and Copper Rule. And the meeting notes, written by an EPA supervisor, imply agreement with the MDEQ contention that “the source of drinking water will be changing again in 2016, so to start a Corrosion Control Study now doesn’t make sense.” Again, there’s a suggestion of regulators at both the state and federal levels playing a waiting game to endure the Flint River situation until the Karegnondi Water Authority comes online in 2016. And yet more state and federal drinking water regulators are on record of being aware of Del Toral’s concerns without clear action to address those concerns.
July 14, 2015: In spite of growing public concern, growing media investigations, and the alarm of EPA’s Del Toral, MDEQ actually allows the City of Flint to decrease the number of homes sampled for lead in the second six-month testing period. This comes to light in an email from Jennifer Crooks (EPA) to Busch, Prysby, and Cook at DEQ on July 14… “I understand that Flint didn’t get the minimum number of lead samples (100) for the second six-month monitoring period that ended June 30, so I assume Flint is collecting the remaining samples now.” Busch responds a day later, “We will provide the 90th percentile when available, but at this point we do not anticipate any violations of the Lead and Copper Rule.” MDEQ later explains in written briefings that the number of samples was decreased to 60 in the second six-month sampling period because Flint’s population had dropped below 100,000. Therefore, a full 100 samples were no longer required by law.
July 21, 2015: EPA and DEQ hold conference call on DEQ’s implementation of the lead and copper rule (as documented in the Michigan Auditor General’s timeline published in December 2015) There appears to be ongoing disagreement between the agencies. EPA wants optimized corrosion control in Flint. MDEQ believes this is premature. (Truth Squad note: But the federal agency doesn’t take steps to override the state agency until months later. In November, EPA clarifies nationwide policy and says optimized corrosion control should begin at the instant that any such major water source switch begins.)
Email from MDEQ’s Liane Shekter-Smith to EPA’s Tinka Hyde same day in reference to the dual-agency conference call:
“(W)hile we understand your concerns with the overall implementation of the lead and copper rule(s); we think it is appropriate for EPA to indicate in writing (an email would be sufficient) your concurrence that the city is in compliance with the lead and copper rule as implemented in Michigan… 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.”
TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: Perhaps this is a question for investigators to now pursue… Why is Shekter-Smith, a top Michigan drinking water regulator, making this distinction between “our goals to address important public health issues” and “compliance requirements”? Truth Squad is reminded at this point of a key conclusion of the fact-finding body formed in October 2015 by Governor Rick Snyder – the Flint Water Advisory Task Force. In a December 29 letter to Snyder this task force said: “We believe that in the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance at MDEQ, a culture exists in which ‘technical compliance’ is considered sufficient to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan. This minimalist approach to regulatory oversight responsibility is unacceptable and simply insufficient to the task of public protection. It led to MDEQ’s failure to recognize a number of indications that switching the water source in Flint would – and did – compromise both water safety and water quality. The MDEQ made a number of decisions that were, and continue to be, justified on the basis that federal rules ‘allowed’ those decisions to be made. ODWMA must adopt a posture that is driven not by this minimalist technical compliance approach, but rather by one that is founded on what needs to be done to assure drinking water safety.”
July 23, 2015: A detailed response to an inquiry on the state’s slow response to the Flint water controversy from Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief aide, Dennis Muchmore, is provided by Linda Dykema, director of the MDHHS Division of Environmental Health. She sends an email to the following colleagues: Corrine Miller (State Epidemiologist and director of the MDHHS Bureau of Epidemiology); Nancy Peeler (program director of the MDHHS program for Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting)...and others.
In essence, Dykema reports no urgency after talking to Steve Busch at MDEQ. She summarizes the discussion with Busch in her email to colleagues and notes “this is what I sent up to my front office” as follows:
- “The DEQ has not seen a change in the city’s compliance with the lead rule since switching to the Flint River source.”
- “Regarding the EPA drinking water official quoted in the press articles (Miguel Del Toral, the EPA regulator who first warned of the lead dangers earlier that year), the report that he issued was a result of his own research and was not reviewed or approved by EPA management. He has essentially acted outside his authority.”
TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: EPA’s Miguel Del Toral, the one regulator who has consistently sounded the alarm about the potential for lead in Flint drinking water, surfaces again. And is ignored – and in this case, discredited – again. The ignorance of Del Toral’s warnings now spreads to a second state agency charged with the protection of public health.
July 28, 2015, 9:25 a.m.: Cristin Larder, a MDHHS epidemiologist, is one of numerous department staffers who begin to analyze state data on childhood lead blood tests in apparent response to Dennis Muchmore’s July 22 inquiry. Larder emails Nancy Peeler (director of the MDHHS program for Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting) and Patricia McKane (manager of the MDHHS Maternal and Child Health Epidemiology Section). Larder reports some preliminary conclusions from checking the data on Flint children. Specifically, there’s a spike in elevated blood lead levels in Flint in summer 2014, in the months after Flint switches to Flint River drinking water.
Larder writes: “Basically, I used the monthly data from 2013-14 to create upper and lower control limits, then plotted the 2014-15 data in a run chart. It shows that the three months in question are the only ones that lie outside the control limit: in fact, they are the only points that lie well above the mean at all. This doesn’t say anything about causality, but it does warrant further investigation.”
July 28, 2015, 1:48 p.m.: Robert L. Scott, data manager for the MDHHS Healthy Homes and Lead Prevention program, also is analyzing state data. Like Larder, Scott sees the summer 2014 spike in Flint blood lead levels. But he doesn’t think it’s serious. Scott writes:
“I said this morning I’d look to see if the distribution of (elevated blood lead levels) in the July-September 2014 ‘spike’ was any different from the typical distribution of (elevated blood lead levels) in Flint. I compared totals by zip code vs. totals by zip code from 2010 (of blood lead levels greater than five micrograms per deciliter). The pattern is very similar and is further evidence, I think, that the water was not a major factor here.”
July 28, 2015, 2:57 p.m.: Nancy Peeler, director of the MDHHS program for Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting, responds in detail to the July 22 departmental inquiry precipitated by the email of the governor’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore. The recipients of Peeler’s email are unclear. She reports efforts to “review our Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program data to see if it might contribute to the understanding of the situation in Flint with their water supply. Key points in Peeler’s email:
- “We compared lead testing rates and lead testing results to the same time frame for the previous 3 years, to see if there were any patterns that suggested that there were increased rates of lead poisoning after water supply was switched… There was a spike in elevated blood lead tests from July-September 2014 (chart on left, gold line)…. However that pattern is not terribly different than what we saw in the previous three years… (W)e are working with our epidemiologist to statistically verify any significant differences… We commonly see a seasonal effect with lead, related to people opening and closing windows more often in the summer, which disturbed old deteriorating paint on the windows… We suspect that the summer spike may be related to this effect… If the home water supply lines and/or river water were contributing to elevated blood lead tests, we expected that the increased rates would extend beyond summer, but they drop quite a bit from September to October, stayed low over the winter, and are just starting to tail up again in the spring of 2015…”
- “So, upon review, we don’t believe our data demonstrates an increase in lead poisoning rates that might be attributable to the change in water for Flint.”
- A MDHHS chart accompanying Peeler’s email clearly states… “Based on the results… positive tests for elevated blood lead levels were higher than usual for children under age 16 living in the City of Flint during the months of July, August and September, 2014…. However, it’s important to note that the purpose of control charts is to monitor data for quick detection of abnormal variation – not to construct a case for causality.”
Brenda Fink, director of the MDHHS Family and Community Health Division at DCH, responds by email: “Really nice job… Great data, great language helping folks understand what the data says.”
TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: In fact, additional third-party research will eventually demonstrate that - at this point and for several more weeks - MDHHS does not understand what its own data actually says. Only after a separate and crucial Flint-specific lead study released in September by Hurley Medical Center in Flint will MDHHS revisit its data and eventually, and painfully, come to the realization that blood lead levels in Flint children are, indeed, rising - and that the rise points toward lead in the drinking water. Ultimately, on December 22, Gov. Snyder’s new director of communications, Meegan Holland declares in email talking points prepared to respond to ongoing criticism: “It wasn’t until the Hurley report came out that our epidemiologists took a more in-depth look at the data by zip code, controlling for seasonal variation, and confirmed an increase outside of normal trends. As a result of this process, we have determined that the way we analyze data collected needs to be thoroughly reviewed.” MDHHS’s failure to see warning signs in childhood lead testing data is the second punch in a one-two combination of state government incompetence regarding the Flint crisis. First comes many months of ignorance, missed warnings, denial, and inaction in the MDEQ regarding the lack of corrosion control in the Flint water pipes, even after alarms are repeatedly raised by EPA. Then comes weeks of ignorance, missed warnings, denial and inaction in MDHHS regarding elevated lead levels in Flint children.
August 3: Email from Tinka Hyde (EPA) to Liane Shekter-Smith (DEQ) regarding notes taken during a July 21 conference call between the agencies regarding the Flint Water System… Key points:
- The first question out of the box at the top of the document: “Is there a public health concern regarding lead in Flint or other regulatory requirements?”
- The document notes that the second round of six-month monitoring resulted in elevation of the 90th percentile to 11 parts per billion. This is nearly double the level of 6 parts per billion in the first six-month monitoring round. But there’s no noted concern about that fact in the meeting notes.
- Much of the rest of the safety discussion is about long-anticipated timelines for corrosion control studies and the anticipated 2016 Flint switch from Flint River water to Karegnondi Water Authority service.
- And there’s more haggling over corrosion control without resolution or swift action by either the state or federal agencies: “MDEQ explained that they did not treat the switch to Flint River water as a ‘new system,’ but as a new source… Region 5 (EPA) noted that under 141.81b3iii that any system that has been deemed optimized must notify the State of any long-term change in treatment or the addition of a new source. The state must review and approve the change… Region 5 explained that they have talked to HQ about the interpretation of regulations and believes that systems that have been deemed optimized need to “maintain corrosion control”… MDEQ mentioned that there are other communities that may leave the Detroit system or connect to the new Lake Huron pipeline, but many of those either don’t need to treat for corrosion control or will be building new treatment plants.”
- “MDEQ is not interested in changing its position on pre-flushing until new regulations come out. They also pointed out that the pre-flushing instructions are not requirements, but suggestions.”
- And now, several implications that all parties involved are changing the way they do business going forward, even while though both sides are dug in about the disagreement over whether Flint should have maintained corrosion control all along…
- “MDEQ and the Region were in agreement that it is important to get phosphate addition going in Flint as soon as possible.” Phosphate addition is a form of corrosion control. Finally, with this, there is an admission by all parties that they’ve got to deal with corrosion control in the Flint water system, regardless of the regulations disagreement. But as events will unfold, this step obviously is way too little, way too late.
- “Region 5 commented that we now have a path forward for Flint despite a difference of opinion on whether the regulations required Flint to ‘maintain’ corrosion control when they started serving treated water from the Flint River.”
- And an admission from MDEQ, that despite not requiring corrosion control in the switch to Flint River water, they are going to require corrosion control from the start when the switch back to KWA/Lake Huron water eventually happens in 2016… “MDEQ and Region 5 agreed that after Flint implements corrosion control treatment, when they switch back to Lake Huron water, they will need to continue the corrosion control treatment while conducting monitoring to determine if this treatment is optimized with the new Lake Huron water quality.”
- “Region 5 will get back to MDEQ once it gets HQ/OGS’s opinion on the need to ‘maintain’ corrosion control treatment once a system is deemed optimized.”
(Truth Squad note: The opinion eventually comes out in November in a new nationwide order declaring that corrosion control needs to happen from the start of any major water source switch.)
August 10, 2015: EPA pushes DEQ to move faster on corrosion control… Email from Thomas Poy (EPA) to Shekter-Smith, Steve Busch and others at MDEQ… “Liane: Any news on Flint since our call a couple weeks ago? Has the letter been sent to inform them that they are not optimized for lead based on their monitoring? Have they been approached about starting corrosion control sooner rather than later?” The next MDEQ action documented in publicly released email records doesn’t happen for another week.
August 24, 2015: MDEQ’s Liane Shekter-Smith sends an email to MDEQ’s Brad Wurfel outlining a draft email to Flint resident LeeAnn Walters, whose high drinking water lead levels earlier in the year sparked Miguel Del Toral’s sounding of alarm bells at the EPA. The email indicates that Ms. Walters had a meeting in the governor’s office on August 4. Key points Shekter-Smith indicates she intends to make to Walters:
- “As indicated during the meeting, the City’s sampling for lead complies with the Action Level standard of 15 parts per billion, but… the City will need to make a recommendation to the MDEQ on how they will fully optimize their corrosion control treatment.”
- “Samples collected at your residence of 212 Browning Avenue were not included in this compliance determination as you utilize a whole home filter.” But DEQ confirmed very high lead levels, as high as 707 parts per billion in the spring, before the water main serving that residence was replaced and the situation improved.
- “…. (O)ur office has been in contact with the Department of Health and Human Services…. And had some preliminary discussions about a public education and assistance campaign regarding household lead issues, guidance and abatement.”
(Truth Squad note: State email records indicate the memo from Shekter-Smith to Walters is emailed in late August. Virginia Tech University professor and water expert Marc Edwards later claims that Walters never actually receives the email.)
September 11, 2015: Email from Jennifer Crooks (EPA) to Thomas Poy (EPA), and Shekter-Smith, Benzie, and Busch at MDEQ. The email is titled, simply, “Clarification” and may relate to Flint legislators’ investigative letter sent to Wyant the day before:
Crooks writes: “Just to clarify; on our call, I wanted to remind you that Miguel’s report had DEQ cc'd. So if the Legislature or whoever might say you were all cc'd, you can truthfully respond that it was EPA’s request that the report not be sent to the cc.s. Consequently, you all never received the report from Miguel. Good to talk with you all. Jennifer.”
(TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: We can’t fault anyone here, most notably the inquiring Flint legislators, if they conclude MDEQ and EPA are engaging here in a disingenuous tap-dance of “hear no evil, speak no evil.” At this point, Miguel Del Toral’s June 24 EPA draft memo has been widely disseminated in the public sphere for two months. Email correspondence makes clear that MDEQ officials are fully aware in early July that the June 24 memo is publicly available. But MDEQ Director Dan Wyant tells legislators his agency doesn’t review or receive draft EPA memos. And a high-ranking EPA official issues a “clarification” to numerous MDEQ staffers that – officially – they’ve never seen the draft memo.)
September 11, 2015: Email from Shekter-Smith (MDEQ) to Linda Dykema and Kory Groestch at MDHHS: “Since we last spoke, there’s been an increase in the media regarding lead exposure. Any progress developing a proposal for a lead education campaign? We got a number of legislative inquiries that we are responding to. It would be helpful to have something more to say.” MDHHS’s Bruneau then responds to Groetsch two hours later with two words, “Told ya…” and a smiley face. Groetsch then responds to Shekter-Smith that Bruneau has written “the bones” of a health education and outreach plan and more discussion is needed.
September 11, 2015: As MDEQ’s top drinking water regulator seeks talking points, another staffer at MDHHS is beginning to see the rough outline of a bigger picture… Robert Scott:, the data manager for the MDHHS Healthy Homes and Lead Prevention program, is copied on a Marc Edwards grant proposal to the National Science Foundation for funding for his Virginia Tech / Flint Water Study… Among other things, Edwards’s grant proposal describes a “perfect storm” of “out of control” corrosion of city water pipes leading to “severe chemical/biological health risks for Flint residents.” Scott forwards the grant proposal to MDHHS colleagues Nancy Peeler, Karen Lishinski, and Wesley Priem.
Scott writes: “When you have a few minutes, you might want to take a look at it. Sounds like there might be more to this than what we learned previously. Yikes!”
September 17, 2015: Email from Susan Moran to numerous MDHHS colleagues: “FYI Front office also is asking about Flint water, let’s make sure we are communicating consistently. Copying Linda and Corrinne. While this is a public health concern, this is largely DEQ/local jurisdiction.” Corrinne Miller at MDHHS responds later same day… “Per the MDEQ, the compliance monitoring for lead within the city has never exceeded the EPA action level for lead.”
September 22, 2015: Email from MDHHS Environmental Public Health Director Lynda D. Dykema, PhD, to MDHHS colleagues Geralyn Lasher (MDHHS deputy director for external relations and communications) Nancy Peeler, and numerous others: “Here is a link to the VA Tech study re city of Flint drinking water… It appears that the researchers have completed testing of a lot of water samples and the results are significantly different than the city and DEQ data. It also appears that they’ve held public meetings in Flint, resulting in concerns about the safety of the water that have arisen in the last few days.”
TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: Eleven days after Virginia Tech’s Edwards publishes his full Flint lead sampling results, MDHHS officials are finally grappling with the alarming findings in email correspondence.
September 22, 2015: Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha requests from Robert Scott and others at MDHHS full state records on blood tests to supplement her own Flint blood-lead research. The doctor says: “…since we have been unable to obtain recent MCIR blood lead data for Flint kids in response to the lead in water concerns, we looked at all the blood lead levels that were processed through Flint's Hurley Medical Center…” and describes “striking results.”
September 23, 2015: A day before Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha releases a major study concluding Flint has a serious problem with children with elevated blood lead levels, ongoing questions prompt some reconsideration by Nancy Peeler, program director of the MDHHS program for Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting. Two months earlier, MDHHS had noted they’d seen elevated lead-blood levels in Flint in summer 2014, but quickly concluded they saw no real relation to Flint water. Now Peeler’s second-guessing herself, as noted in this email “Based on questions coming through, I do think we need to run our Flint charts for the same population group that the Flint docs ran (as close as we can approximate the sample) but I’d look at it across the five years again. Depending on what our charts show, we may want to consider having (state epidemiologists) help us run an analysis more like the docs ran – but let’s look at the revised charts as a starting point.”
September 24, 2015, 10:26 a.m.: MDHHS Deputy Director Geralyn Lasher emails to MDHHS Director Nick Lyon and numerous other MDHHS staffers and managers… She had “just gotten off the phone with Nancy Peeler and Bob Scott and are putting together talking points about this ‘study’ that the physicians will be discussing that claims an increase in elevated blood levels in children since the change to the water system source.”
September 24, 2015, 3:45 p.m.: MDHHS lead data manager Robert Scott emails colleague Nancy Peeler with a new discovery. He attaches a spreadsheet to the email, says he has attempted to “recreate Hurley’s numbers,” and says he sees “a difference between the two years (presumably pre- and post-water switch), but not as much difference as (Hurley) did.” In other words, in attempting to replicate Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s methodology, he’s beginning to see something somewhat similar to what the Hurley doctor has found. Scott also notes in the email to Peeler: “I’m sure this one is not for the public.”
September 24, 2015: Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards presses hard on Robert Scott at MDHHS for state blood-lead records. In email to Scott, Edwards says Hurley researchers have been unable to get access to the records…. Edwards then asks: “Can you tell me why it is so difficult to get this data, and why your agency is raising so many obstacles to sharing it with everyone who asks?… I have to say, it is very disturbing that the state keeps issuing these blood lead reports and statements in their press releases, and refuses to share the data backing them up with outside researchers… I note that I have been asking to see your data since MDEQ first sent it to reporters back in August, and I count 10 email that I sent responding to all your questions. As of yet, you have given me nothing in response.”
Scott drafts an email response a day later:
“As you well now, the data you and Dr Hanna-Attisha are requesting are derived from personal health data, which of course is confidential… I worked with you earlier this month to get data to you relatively quickly but did not manage to complete the process before I went on annual leave for several days. I neglected to inform you that I’d be away, and I apologize for not informing you.”
But Scott doesn’t send the email. He sends it to colleague Peeler for review. Peeler tells Scott to “apologize less” in his letter, and is further focused on image protection: “The email you received could be read as an intent to escalate and spin things, and I don’t think you need to get caught up in that.”
Scott writes back to Peeler: “I agree that his statements are inappropriate; there are plenty of things I’d LIKE to say in response, but won’t.”
September 25, 2015, 1:19 p.m.: MDHHS’s Robert Scott responds to email from colleagues about Detroit Free Press interest in doing a lead story. At 12:16 p.m., Free Press reporter Kristi Tanner sends an email to Angela Minicuci at MDHHS saying Tanner had looked at the lead increase in Flint as shown in DHS records between 2013-2014 and 2-14-2015 and Tanner is concluding that the increase “is statistically significant.” MDHHS’s Peeler tasks Robert Scott with responding.
Scott writes to Minicuci: “The best I could say is something like this: ‘While the trend for Michigan as a whole has shown a steady decrease in lead poisoning year by year, smaller areas such as the city of Flint have their bumps from year to year while still trending downward overall.’”
Peeler appears to be looking for a positive media spin, too. She writes back to Scott and Minicuci: “My secret hope is that we can work in the fact that this pattern is similar to the recent past.”
TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: This attempted media spin completely ignores what Scott had told Peeler in email the previous afternoon. He’d crunched numbers and replicated something somewhat similar to the results of the Hurley lead study. Then again, as Scott had opined in his email to Peeler the previous afternoon, “I’m sure this one is not for the public.”
September 25, 2015: Again, a day after telling Nancy Peeler he has begun to roughly approximate Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s Flint lead test results, Robert Scott makes no such acknowledgement in an email exchange directly with Dr. Hanna-Attisha.
At 3:12 p.m. on the 25th, Dr. Hanna-Attisha writes to Scott: “Bob, did you ever look at your data that was released for kids less than 5, rather than 16? 16 seems so strange – we rarely do lead levels in kids over the age of 5.”
At 3:45 Scott responds: “No, I didn’t run the data for kids 0-5. We normally would use that age range, and I don’t completely recall the conversation that led to using 0-15 – possibly trying to cast as wide a nest as possible?” In Scott’s email to Peeler the day before, he asked Peeler to “Let me know if you think it’s worth pursuing any farther.” Publicly available emails do not suggest he asked the same question of the lead researcher on the Hurley study just one day later.
September 29, 2015: Email from MDHHS Deputy Director Geralyn Lasher to Nancy Peeler, Eden Wells (the state’s chief medical officer), Robert Scott, and several others at MDHHS: “Is it possible to get the same type of data for just children under the age of six? So basically, the city of Flint kids ages six and under with the same type of approach as the attached chart you gave us last week?” Response, less than an hour later, from Linda Dykema to Corrinne Miller, Sara LyonCallo and Eden Wells.. “It’s bad enough to have a data war with outside entities, we absolutely cannot engage in competing data analyses within the Department, or, heaven forbid, in public releases.” Moments later, Eden Wells issues a one-word response… “Agree.”
October 15, 2015: Email from Liane Shekter-Smith (MDEQ) to DEQ colleagues Brad Wurfel, Jim Sygo, and George Krisztian. Key points:
Before the switch to Flint River water, “Staff believed that it was appropriate to monitor for two 6-month rounds of sampling to determine if additional measures were necessary. Based on the sampling performed, the city is required to install corrosion control treatment (see August 17, 2015 letter).”
“A pilot test was not required or conducted. Staff believed that it was appropriate to monitor for two 6-month rounds to determine if additional measures would be necessary.”
December 3, 2015: The staff of State Representative Adam Zemke sends email to MDEQ requesting feedback on a bill he plans to introduce to require drinking water in schools be tested at least once every three years. MDEQ’s Liane Shekter-Smith responds in email four days later: “… (T)his is a huge expense…. They have to figure there are approximately 30 drinking water faucets on average at each school… I suspect it’s a really big number! This proposal is also disconnected from how water sampling is accomplished. Most parameters are required to be met at the plant tap (at the point the water enters the distribution system). Only a few parameters (lead, copper, disinfection byproducts, bacteria) are monitored out in the system at customer taps. Even if the proposal were to be for only lead and copper, this is a huge expense that would be placed on the supplier of water inappropriately. I understand the desire to have this kind of information, but if the legislature wants to require this monitoring, the burden for this should be on the schools or the board of education.”
January 22, 2016: Two MDEQ employees are “suspended pending an investigation, in accordance with Civil Service rules,” says a press release from the governor’s office. The employees are not named in the press release, though will soon be identified in media reports and state correspondence as Stephen Busch and Liane Shekter-Smith.
February 5, 2016: Gov. Rick Snyder announces that Liane Shekter-Smith, head of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance for the state DEQ, is fired. Four months prior, Shekter-Smith had received a performance bonus of $2,652, according to the Detroit News. She is the first to be fired in connection with the Flint water crisis.
“Putting the well-being of Michiganders first needs to be the top priority for all state employees,“ Snyder says in a written statement.
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