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Where blame leads so far in Flint water crisis

The litany of mistakes that caused lead poisoning in Flint’s drinking water – and responsibility for those gross errors – will be debated for years by investigators, lawyers, politicians, the media, and the Michigan public.

Right now, as more news and finger pointing comes out daily, there are as many questions as answers.

No one is exactly sure how many Flint residents – especially young children – experienced elevated blood lead levels since Flint switched its drinking water source to the Flint River nearly two years ago. The full extent of the exact damage on individuals may be impossible to fully determine, especially among Flint’s vulnerable, low-income residents who already face many challenges.

Resolution of the ongoing water crisis remains distant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that new filters given to Flint residents to make the tainted water safe to drink likely did not fully protect Flint residents with especially high levels of lead coming out of their taps. Long term, the EPA has said it has serious concerns that Flint “lacks the professional expertise and resources” necessary to “safely manage” the city’s drinking water supply.

Today, Bridge Magazine’s Michigan Truth Squad publishes a more than 30,000-word timeline of the Flint debacle, the most comprehensive published, in one place, to date. It is intended as an informal public repository of all major public records relating to Flint’s water crisis. It is presented for local residents and a national audience looking to separate fact from fiction and understand more deeply the full dimensions of this man-made tragedy. A complete portrait of the Flint disaster will likely take many months of official investigation and years of litigation.

The reams of currently available information presented in the Truth Squad timeline points in five directions. Readers can make their own conclusions as to who or what agency is most to blame.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

MDEQ is responsible for drinking water safety and regulation across our entire state. This state agency failed the people of Flint – and did so with extreme disrespect.

MDEQ’s complete failure to anticipate and prevent the Flint water disaster is so drastic that it calls into question the agency’s ability to regulate and safeguard public drinking water supplies statewide. Indeed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now investigating MDEQ’s ability (or lack thereof) to do just that.

As the Truth Squad timeline documents, MDEQ failed in the following key ways:

  1. MDEQ drinking water regulators allowed the City of Flint to switch drinking water sources to the Flint River in 2014 without requiring any treatment to control corrosion of Flint’s water mains. Flint River water is highly corrosive. It rusts old city water mains. That corrosion caused lead to leach into the drinking water. These chemical reactions have long been known in the water safety community. MDEQ did not act to anticipate this problem, which would result in disaster, after the Flint River switch.
  2. MDEQ drinking water regulators grossly misinterpreted federal regulations requiring chemical treatments to control corrosion in Flint water mains.
  3. MDEQ drinking water regulators ignored, and attempted to discredit, numerous serious warning signs of corrosion leading to lead poisoning in the Flint drinking water system. General Motors declared early on that the Flint River water was too corrosive for its manufacturing processes. MDEQ regulators said GM’s fleeing from Flint water was not a problem. Within weeks of the 2014 water supply switch, Flint residents complained of discolored, smelly, bad-tasting water and related health maladies. MDEQ issued some minor violations, but reacted with little to no urgency. For example, in a February 2015 briefing memo to Governor Rick Snyder, MDEQ acknowledged “hiccups” in Flint drinking water quality but concluded, “it’s not like an eminent threat to public health.” (Note: We believe DEQ meant “imminent,” meaning urgent.)
  4. MDEQ drinking water regulators disputed, ignored, and attempted to discredit crucial alarms issued by an EPA drinking water regulator. That EPA official, Miguel Del Toral, warned this state agency repeatedly, beginning in February 2015, that the lack of corrosion control in Flint water mains would lead to a serious lead safety hazard in drinking water supplies. In numerous communications, MDEQ officials denigrated Del Toral by describing him as acting on his own without authority, and consistently fought against Del Toral’s conclusion that corrosion control treatment should have been in place as soon as Flint switched to Flint River drinking water. Not until mid-October 2015, when Flint was in full-blown crisis, would MDEQ acknowledge the mistake.
  5. As the Flint crisis built into full-bore eruption in 2015, MDEQ responded with a series of incredible public statements that we expect will be built into academic case studies of some of the worst, most insensitive and arrogant crisis communication messaging in the history of public relations. Many of those statements are on display in the Truth Squad’s gallery of key statements in the Flint crisis, which is also published today.

In summary, the overwhelming weight of the currently available public record points directly to MDEQ as the party in the best position to prevent lead from poisoning Flint’s drinking water supply once the decision was made to switch to the Flint River. The agency utterly failed to meet that fundamental responsibility.

In December, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, an investigative body established by Gov. Rick Snyder, concluded: “We believe the primary responsibility for what happened in Flint rests with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). Although many individuals and entities at the state and local levels contributed to creating and prolonging the problem, MDEQ is the government agency that has responsibility to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan. It failed in that responsibility and must be held accountable for that failure.”

In January, the EPA national administrator issued an emergency order concerning Flint water. The order concluded that lack of corrosion control clearly caused lead to leach into drinking water supplies. The EPA order said: “The City, MDEQ, and the State have failed to take adequate measures to protect public health… The EPA finds that there is an imminent and substantial endangerment to the people drinking water from the public water system of the City of Flint and that the actions taken by the State and/or the City are inadequate to protect public health.”

MDEQ Director Dan Wyant and Director of Communications Brad Wurfel resigned in December 2015 over the Flint scandal. Two key MDEQ drinking water regulators, Liane Shekter Smith and Stephen Busch, have been suspended pending further investigation. The judgments, decisions and statements of these four MDEQ officials are on display throughout the Truth Squad timeline.

Without the crucial and vigilant research of an independent drinking water expert, Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, the early, solitary drumbeat of concern from Del Toral of the EPA, and the courageous and, ultimately, spot-on medical evidence produced by a local Flint pediatrician and her colleagues, high lead levels in the Flint water system would have continued to escape public view.
In Truth Squad’s view, based on the presently available public record, MDEQ deserves every ounce of scrutiny, scorn and public mistrust now heaped upon it.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

In its January 2016 emergency order, the EPA 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…” (Emphasis added by Truth Squad.)

If by “at all levels” the EPA means a single, determined regulator in its bureaucracy, even as his superiors did not seriously act on and in some ways undercut his warnings, than this statement is accurate. A close reading of the Bridge timeline exposes EPA’s January statement as revisionist history that should not be allowed to stand.

For months, only one EPA water regulator, Miguel Del Toral, appears to have raised serious concerns about the lack of corrosion control and the lead threat in Flint drinking water. Currently available public documents referenced in the Truth Squad timeline indicate that other EPA officials did not fully support or act on Del Toral’s concerns with any sense of urgency.

Indeed, in a July 2015 email to Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman called Del Toral’s grave concerns merely a “draft” memo and even apologized “for the way in which this matter was handled” after Del Toral’s concerns became public. Email records of one DEQ official claim that EPA “apologized profusely” to MDEQ after Del Toral’s “unvetted draft” became public. EPA did not officially release Del Toral’s in-depth memo of concern about Flint to MDEQ until November 2015. That was more than four months after Del Toral drafted the memo and eight months after he first sounded the alarm to state regulators.

Also, in July 2015, another EPA water official, Jennifer Crooks, summarized ongoing MDEQ-EPA discussions about Flint, again without a clear sense of urgency. Crooks wrote: “Since Flint has lead service lines, we understand some citizen-requested lead sampling is exceeding the [federal] 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.”

Moreover, in seeking to explain why the federal watchdog environmental agency didn’t sound the public alarm earlier to Flint residents, the EPA meekly offered that this was the role of the state agency. While perhaps technically true, EPA has the authority, the clout, and frankly the moral obligation to set aside such protocols in the service of urgently addressing an emerging health crisis when states are reluctant to do so – indeed, that’s exactly what EPA did in its January 2016 emergency order regarding Flint.

To its credit, EPA has swung into serious action in Flint in recent weeks in numerous ways. But that action was slow in coming. And for the agency to claim otherwise is disingenuous, based on the currently available public record, as demonstrated by the fact that EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman resigned over the Flint crisis in January 2016.

The currently available public record suggests EPA bears considerable responsibility for not acting quickly or forcefully on the grave concerns of Miguel Del Toral, its own expert on the ground in Flint.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS)

Just as the MDEQ is responsible for protecting drinking water supplies, MDHHS is responsible for monitoring elevated blood lead levels in children statewide – and taking action when they see a problem.

And just like MDEQ, the MDHHS fell down on the job and failed the residents and children of Flint.
A stark increase in elevated blood lead levels attributable to the Flint River water switch was discovered entirely by Hurley Medical Center research in late summer 2015 – research led by Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.

In contrast to Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s heroic discovery, MDHHS whiffed, and then disputed the Flint doctor’s conclusions.

Two months before Dr. Hanna-Attisha released her results and broke the Flint scandal wide open, MDHHS experts looked for an elevated blood lead trend in Flint in response to concerns from Gov. Snyder’s chief of staff. The MDHHS experts identified a spike in Flint blood lead levels shortly after the Flint River switch, but downplayed that spike and concluded it wasn’t attributable to the drinking water in Flint.

On the same day in late September that Dr. Hanna-Attisha released her results, Wesley Priem, manager of the MDHHS Healthy Homes Section, remarked in an email to a colleague that, “…This is definitely being driven by a little science and a lot of politics.”

Days later, MDHHS Director Nick Lyons seemed to order his department to look for ways to dispute rather than verify Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s research. In email, Lyons wrote: “I would like to make a strong statement with a demonstration of proof that the lead blood levels seen are not out of the ordinary and are attributable to seasonal fluctuations.”

By October 1, as MDHHS officials finally concluded Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s conclusions and warnings were accurate, Lyons prepared for a press conference by remarking in an email to a colleague, “I’d like to express my appreciation to the Hurley doctors for bringing this issue to our attention.”

By the end 2015, the Snyder Administration would conclude: “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 experts’ initial miscalculations significantly helped delay the full discovery of the Flint lead emergency. If not for the independent work of Dr. Hanna-Attisha and other outside experts, Flint residents might still today be drinking dangerous water without warning from this state agency.

The Snyder Administration

The Flint debacle happened on Gov. Rick Snyder’s watch, with critical decisions that led to choosing the Flint River for the city’s drinking water made by emergency managers he appointed; decisions that were signed off on by Snyder’s state treasurer, and largely supported by local officials.

Amid some calls for him to resign, the governor has apologized to the people of Flint. He has pledged to fix the problems. Since autumn 2015, he has provided considerable aid, from money, to technical assistance, to boots on the ground in the form of National Guard troops passing out bottled water and tap filters.

Surely, for the people of Flint, this is too little, too late.

To be fair, the governor could not be expected to know early on that water and health experts at two state agencies were simply wrong in dismissing the risks posed by the city’s switch to the Flint River.

And to Snyder’s credit, in late July, Snyder Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore expressed worry to the agencies that Flint residents’ complaints of brown water and skin rashes were being “blown off” by the state. That inquiry sparked a fresh round of denials of any serious problem by both MDEQ and MDHHS.

But, time after time, the Snyder Administration appeared to follow the incorrect guidance of these state agencies for many weeks as the Flint crisis mushroomed. The Truth Squad timeline clearly illustrates this sense of prolonged denial and inaction.

Worse, in late-September 2015, after independent experts had clearly outlined serious water treatment concerns and evidence of a clear public health threat of lead in the Flint water, additional Muchmore emails displayed far more callous political calculation than sense of urgency.

After the revelations of Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards and Hurley’s Dr. Hanna-Attisha were made public, Muchmore described Flint drinking water as “less than savory” and deflected that “it’s really the city’s water system that needs to deal with it.” In these communications to the governor and other aides, Muchmore was essentially adopting the don’t-worry conclusions of both MDEQ and MDHHS, rather than considering an independent probe for a desperate city.

The question remains: Why did the governor and key aides continue to rely on woefully incorrect information from state agencies as the crisis magnified? Why didn’t they do more, sooner, at the highest levels of state government, to deal with the crisis?

We expect numerous investigations will probe any culpability of officials in the Snyder Administration, including the governor himself.

To date, Gov. Snyder has released what he characterized as two years of his own personal email records relating to Flint (a release not required under the state’s Freedom of Information laws). That’s not good enough. Snyder has not released full email records of all in his administration concerning the Flint crisis. He must. Truth Squad encourages investigators to pursue public release of every word ever written by any government official at any level concerning the Flint crisis. The people of Flint deserve it.

Public officials in Flint

Had Flint not switched away from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, the Flint crisis in all likelihood would not have happened.

In a recent analysis, Truth Squad took Gov. Snyder and his appointed emergency managers to task for implying that the decision to switch from DWSD to the Karegnondi Water Authority and, ultimately, to the Flint River was made by Flint city officials. As Truth Squad noted, Flint’s state-appointed emergency managers ran the city when every key decision was made. They signed the relevant orders and the state treasurer signed off on those decisions.

Truth Squad would note, however, that lost in that narrative is ample public record that local Flint leaders clearly desired to move away Detroit water service amid concerns about cost and local control. Flint leaders enthusiastically endorsed joining the new regional KWA scheduled to come online later in 2016. And though they did not make the decision to use the Flint River until KWA was ready, Flint leaders enthusiastically endorsed the Flint River decision – and toasted it the day of the water switch. The Truth Squad timeline clearly illustrates these local preferences and decisions.

Two months after the Flint River switch, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling declared to that “It’s a quality, safe product… I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water.”

The actions of Flint officials going forward require ongoing scrutiny, especially since the EPA has declared it is worried the city “lacks the professional expertise and resources” necessary to “safely manage” the city’s drinking water supply.

Less blameworthy: state EM law, unions, and other factors

A host of factors, decades in the making, helped create the economic conditions that preceded the Flint water disaster. Flint’s general economic decline has clearly ravaged the city and its people, leaving Flint with a decrepit infrastructure and miniscule financial resources to recover or maintain what little the city has left.

Some claim hard-line trade unionism drove businesses out of Flint decades ago, while others rail against major manufacturers like General Motors leaving Flint high and dry by pulling out, taking thousands of good-paying jobs with them. Some blame white flight, and others blame mismanagement of city finances. Still others lambast state policies and budget priorities that have resulted in steep declines in revenue sharing with municipalities like Flint.

In all of this worthy public debate, at least two narratives have been cited recently as possible contributors to Flint’s water crisis.

The Michigan emergency manager law

The suggestion that the state’s emergency financial management law itself led directly to lead poisoning in Flint children, is not supported by the public record. This narrative is amplified by national political and media pundits. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow is a leading proponent of this theory. And it is further amplified by others, like Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who, in connecting the emergency manager law to the Flint crisis, wrote in late January: “Snyder undertook an arrogant public-policy experiment, underpinned by the ideological assumption that the ‘experience set’ of corporate-style managers was superior to the checks and balances of democracy. This is why Flint happened.”

For several years, the emergency manager law has resulted in nearly constant, worthy, and unfinished debate about local control, threats to local self-determination, municipal finance policy generally, and what to do about municipalities and school systems facing unsustainable levels of debt and deficits.

At least two Flint emergency managers are among those now facing questions about the decision to switch to the Flint River. If those emergency managers are found culpable in some way, they should face repercussions. But there is no known evidence that the EM law itself produced the Flint water crisis.

Beyond that, it remains unclear whether Flint city officials, had they been in charge at the time, would have altered the decisions which launched the Flint drinking water crisis.

The record shows these officials broadly supported dropping Detroit as a drinking water source. A state-appointed emergency manager made the decision to use the Flint River as a water source, but far from protesting that choice, Flint officials celebrated the switch by raising a toast with Flint River water the day of the switch. We’ll never know what decision Flint officials would have made entirely on their own. But they very easily could have followed the tragically misguided regulatory orders of the MDEQ and fallen into a lead crisis if a state-appointed emergency manager had not been running the city.

On the other hand, the record also reflects that many of those same city officials, had they been in control last spring, would have acted sooner to stop the crisis. They tried. City Council voted 7-1 in March to return to Detroit water service. The Snyder-appointed emergency manager at that moment called the vote “incomprehensible,” declined to follow the vote, and kept the city drinking Flint River water.


At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council - which supports “limited government, free markets and federalism”- issued a tweet in late January 2016 putting all the blame for the Flint crisis on Flint itself. ALEC said: “Gov’t failure, brought on by public employee pensions, poisoned Flint water. Stop blaming everyone else.”

That is one of the single most blatantly wrong and incredibly insensitive examples of naked political opportunism in the entire Flint saga. There is no support for it in the public record examined by Truth Squad.

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