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Years of missed warnings before Flint River switch

In the days, weeks and months leading to Flint’s tragic change of drinking water sources, experts expressed numerous misgivings about the switch. But with cost concerns among the driving factors, the Flint River plan flowed ahead – directly toward disaster.

Missed warnings about the Flint River are detailed in more than 20,000 pages of Flint-related emails and documents released last Friday by Gov. Rick Snyder’s office.

Chief among them: Two days before former state Treasurer Andy Dillon formally recommended moving Flint off Detroit water, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality drinking water safety regulator warned that using the Flint River would pose increased public health risk, including a higher risk of exposure to carcinogens.

Bridge’s Michigan Truth Squad today publishes an expanded Flint water disaster timeline with many new entries based on the latest records made public by the Snyder administration. Timeline readers can now consider the context of two public health crises – lead exposure and Legionnaires’ disease – which rapidly developed side by side after the switch to Flint River drinking water.

This report recounts, in chronological order, missed warning signs about the Flint River as now detailed in the full Flint water disaster timeline.

A forgotten report from 2004?

For many years, the city of Flint bought treated water from the Detroit system. At the same time, the city’s water treatment plant retained access to the Flint River for emergency backup purposes. But water-safety regulators have long concluded the river is far from an ideal drinking water source.

Twelve years ago, a technical assessment declared that Flint’s then-standby water intake from the river was “very highly susceptible” to contamination. The 2004 report – written by the U.S. Geological Survey, MDEQ and Flint water utilities department – noted that the treatment plant had effectively treated Flint River water to meet drinking water standards. But the report also concluded that agricultural and urban runoff, as well as 96 potential contaminant sources upstream made the drinking water intake “very highly sensitive.”

This 2004 report did not appear to be a significant consideration among officials discussing the river option a decade later, at least not according to state email records released last week. In fact, a veteran MDEQ engineer responsible for Flint drinking water oversight initially said he didn’t know if such a report existed when he was asked about it in email in early 2015, nearly a year after the Flint River switch.

2011-2012: Water 'aesthetics'

Flint and Genesee County officials long discussed how to move away from Detroit water, for cost savings and to have local control over the region’s supply. The Karegnondi Water Authority was envisioned to supply Lake Huron water to Genesee County, Flint and other communities far north of Detroit.

“The Karegnondi Water Authority has the potential to be a major factor in our region’s economic development efforts,” Flint Department of Public Works Director Howard Croft wrote to a MDEQ official in May 2012. “The City of Flint is pleased to be a partner in the process…”

But the KWA is not scheduled to come online until later in 2016. Long-running disputes with the Detroit system ultimately led Flint’s state-appointed emergency managers and local elected officials to turn to the Flint River for a short-term solution. Water-safety officials raised concerns, but none seemed to reach anything approaching red-flag status. Instead, those same experts seemed to think the river’s quality issues could be overcome through treatment.

In July 2011, a Rowe Engineering report analyzed the Flint River as a permanent water supply. It would require more treatment than Lake Huron water, and the river water “aesthetics” wouldn’t be as good, but the river “can be treated to meet current regulations,” Rowe concluded. The Rowe report did not predict the highly corrosive, discolored, smelly and ultimately contaminated water that would eventually flow through the taps of Flint homes.

2013: A nod to carcinogens, then full speed ahead

As the talks leading to Flint’s break with the Detroit water system intensified in early 2013, concerns bubbled quietly in the depths of MDEQ. In January 2013, MDEQ District Engineer Mike Prysby emailed his colleagues about the prospect of switching to the Flint River. Prysby raised concerns about the need to soften the river water and the possible need for “advanced treatment” to ward off potential contaminants. “I agree that the city should have concerns of fully utilizing the Flint River” for 100 percent of its drinking water supply, Prysby wrote.

Two months later, Prysby’s colleague, Stephen Busch, was considerably more pointed when asked to participate in a state assessment of Flint’s future water options.

“Continuous” use of the Flint River for the city’s drinking water would “pose an increased microbial risk to public health” and “pose an increased risk of disinfection by-product (carcinogen) exposure to public health,” Busch, a district manager in MDEQ’s drinking water division, wrote to then-MDEQ Director Dan Wyant and numerous other MDEQ officials on March 26, 2013. (The use of the word “carcinogen” in parentheses was Busch’s language.)

The next day, MDEQ Deputy Director Jim Sygo emailed Busch and said: “As you might guess we are in a situation with Emergency Financial Managers so it’s entirely possible that they will be making decisions relative to cost. The concern in either situation is that a compliant supply of source water and drinking water can be supplied.”

And the day after that, March 28, Dillon wrote to Gov. Snyder and said, “I am recommending we support the City of Flint’s decision to join (the Karegnondi Water Authority). The City’s Emergency Manager, Mayor, and City Council all support this decision. Dan Wyant likewise concurs and will confirm via email.”

And so Flint, with state supervision, soon began the formal process of switching to Flint River drinking water, flipping the switch in April 2014. The change also launched the crisis that has resulted in lead poisoning; water safety violations for potentially carcinogenic trihalomethanes; a suspected link between the drinking water and a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak which killed nine people; lawsuits; and numerous investigations, including criminal probes by the Michigan attorney general and federal authorities.

The regulator who raised those March 2013 concerns, Busch, has been suspended over the Flint crisis. Wyant, who was copied on Busch’s March 2013 concerns about the Flint River, resigned in December over the Flint crisis.

Spring 2014: Last-minute concerns

On March 26, 2014, MDEQ’s Busch told colleagues that the agency had a lot to talk about before the impending Flint River switch.

“…I would like to make sure everyone is on the same page on… what Flint will be required to do in order to start using their plant full time,” Busch wrote in email. “Because the plant is set up for emergency use, they could start up at any time, but starting up for continuous operation will carry significant changes in regulatory requirements so there is a very gray area as to what we consider for startup.”

A month before the switch, key MDEQ water safety officials were just getting their arms around that regulatory “gray area.” Nearly two years later, after the Flint debacle unfolded, MDEQ Director Wyant would blame departmental “inexperience” for a crucial failure of oversight.

MDEQ failed to require corrosion control treatment after the switch, and the agency held tightly to its regulatory misread for months as corrosive river water ate into old distribution lines, allowing lead to leach into the city’s drinking water.

Despite their internally expressed trepidations, MDEQ regulators thought the Flint River could work until the KWA water came online. It was a waiting game. Busch said as much on April 23, as he drafted departmental talking points by email right before Flint made the switch.

“While the Department is satisfied with the City’s ability to treat water from the Flint River, the Department looks forward to the long term solution of continued operation of the City of Flint Water Treatment Plant using water from the KWA as a more consistent and higher quality source water,” Busch wrote.

Yet Busch’s positive spin came a week after chilling disclosures from deep within the Flint Water Treatment Plant.

Concerns at plant, switch happens anyway

On April 16-17, 2014, just days before Flint flipped the switch, Michael Glasgow, the laboratory and water-quality supervisor at the city treatment plant, sounded a series of alarms in emails to MDEQ regulators.

Glasgow had expected big changes to water quality monitoring procedures before the switch. But he said he hadn’t received fresh direction from MDEQ beyond a months-old written comment that “things were subject to change.”

“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,” Glasgow wrote on April 16. “I would like to make sure we are monitoring, reporting and meeting requirements before I give the OK to start distributing water.”

A day later, Glasgow told MDEQ regulators the Flint water treatment plant would fire up against his best judgment.

“I have people above me making plans to distribute water ASAP,” Glasgow emailed MDEQ. “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 out 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.”

A week later, on April 24, Daugherty Johnson, the Flint utilities administrator, was far more upbeat in his own email to MDEQ staff as he sought state approval to avoid working with Detroit for a backup water supply agreement.

“As you are aware, the City has undergone extensive upgrades to our Water Treatment Plant and its associated facilities,” Johnson wrote. “Our intentions and efforts have been to operate our facility as the primary drinking water source for the City of Flint.”

The next day, Flint River water officially became the city’s drinking water source.

“It’s regular, good, pure drinking water, and it’s right in our backyard,” Flint Mayor Dayne Walling said in toasting the Flint River switch. “This is the first step in the right direction for Flint, as we take this monumental step forward in controlling the future of our community’s most precious resource.”

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