Are Flint's lead problems just incompetence or something worse? 

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You know things are bad when the best defense you can conjure is incompetence.

But that's exactly what Dan Wyant, director of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, resorted to last week when he admitted that the state mishandled the Flint water crisis.

"It has recently become clear that our drinking water program staff made a mistake while working with the city of Flint," Wyant announced in a written statement. "Simply stated, staff employed a federal protocol they believed was appropriate, and it was not."

It is bad enough that the obtuse and antiseptic nature of that admission stands in stark contrast to the human tragedy it is supposed to address: the contamination of a city's drinking water with lead, a potent neurotoxin that can cause permanent damage, especially in children.

Even worse than the statement itself is the fact that Wyant's comment, limp as it is, would likely not have been made at all were it not for a batch of emails obtained by Virginia Tech University professor Marc Edwards.

Edwards has been at the forefront of bringing to light the catastrophe that began in April 2014, when Flint's state-appointed emergency manager ordered the city stop buying its water from Detroit and start using the Flint River as the municipality's source of drinking water.

When that changeover occurred, the state should have ensured Flint continued using chemicals designed to control corrosion — and keep lead from leeching into the water flowing into people's homes.

Instead, according to Flint Public Works director Howard Croft, officials at the MDEQ decided against using corrosion control.

Why?

According to Wyant, it is because MDEQ staff was confused, and somehow applied rules intended for cities much smaller than Flint, which has nearly 100,000 residents.

Admitting to incompetence, it appears, is preferable to confessing to outright dishonesty and cover-up.

The documents obtained by Edwards and posted on the website FlintWaterStudy.org, as well as emails obtained by the ACLU of Michigan in a separate Freedom of Information Act request, show MDEQ staff adamantly refused to apply the type of corrosion control the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said was required and common sense would indicate was absolutely needed to protect the health of Flint's residents.

Instead of reacting quickly when the problem started to become apparent in February, MDEQ officials dragged their feet, initially provided misinformation to the EPA, and then tried to tamp down legitimate fears once the true nature of the threat began to be publicly exposed.

The first alarm

On Feb. 26, Jennifer Crooks, Michigan program officer for the EPA's Region 5, sent MDEQ staff an urgent message regarding high levels of lead in the water at the home of Flint resident LeeAnne Walters and her family, according to documents obtained by the ACLU of Michigan through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Crooks reported to MDEQ that Flint's utilities manager, Mike Glasgow, had tested Walters' home for lead.

"WOW!!!! Did he find LEAD!" Crooks exclaimed.

Lead levels of 104 parts per billion were detected — seven times the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.

"She has two children under the age of 3," Crooks wrote. "Big worries here."

The problem, Crooks explained, was that the river water, chemically so different than the much cleaner Lake Huron water previously supplied by Detroit, was "leaching out contaminants of the biofilms inside the pipes."

That biofilm — essentially a protective coating created by the addition of phosphates to the water — was being destroyed by the highly corrosive river water.

Water that contained no corrosion control.

But the EPA, at that point, didn't know that. Crooks assumed MDEQ was adhering to federal regulations and using some sort of corrosion control, but wasn't sure about the specifics.

"Flint must have Optimal Corrosion Control Treatment," Crooks wrote. "Is it phosphates?"

The next day, the MDEQ's Stephen Busch, district supervisor for the Flint region, replied with an email assuring the EPA that the city of Flint did indeed have an optimized corrosion control program. But he offered no specifics.

In reality, however, there was no such program in place at all.

In March, Crooks sent another email to MDEQ staff, saying the situation at Walters' had grown worse, with a second test finding water lead levels of 397 parts per billion.

"Any thoughts on how to respond to her?" Crooks asked. "I'm running out of ideas."

At that point, the MDEQ tried to make it seem that the high lead levels being found in Walters' home came from lead plumbing rather than from a citywide infrastructure problem with the old pipes that run throughout much of Flint.

But a personal inspection by the EPA's Miguel Del Toral found what the Walters family knew: The lead had to be coming from outside, because the plumbing in their house was all made of plastic.

It was in April that the EPA finally learned that Flint, operating under the guidance of the MDEQ, in fact had no corrosion-control program.

Despite that, MDEQ director Wyant was insisting at a press conference in October that the city did have a corrosion treatment program in place all along — even though two different independent studies had already produced evidence of a severe lead problem in Flint's water.

Lime was being used to do the job, Wyant told a crowd of reporters gathered in a room at Flint's Kettering University. It just wasn't doing a good enough job, he asserted.

But according to Virginia Tech's Edwards, adding lime to Flint's water was actually exacerbating the corrosion problem.

"I was relaying what staff and consultants have indicated to me," Wyant said in a statement provided to The Detroit News. "Lime softening was used to address the hardness of the water. While this has an impact on pH, testing bore out that more needed to be done."

Indeed.

"At this point, nothing MDEQ says should be believed," wrote Edwards in a posting on FlintWaterStudy.org.

All along, it had been forces outside of the MDEQ that have been responsible for getting the truth out about the problems of lead in Flint's water.

Regarding corrosion control, it was Walters, the mother of a 4-year-old son found to have elevated levels of lead in his blood, who ferreted out the truth.

Determined to do everything within her power to make sure no other innocent children were damaged, she kept digging for the truth, and then looked for allies who would help expose it.

One of the things she did, after learning from Del Toral the state's claims about the use of corrosion control, was to contact officials in the city's Department of Public Works. That's when she learned that corrosion control had not been used since April 2014, when the switch to the Flint River was made.

As Edwards reported on FlintWaterStudy.org:

"First, Flint residents had to determine on their own that MDEQ's assertion of 'optimal corrosion control' was false, after children's blood lead was elevated from drinking the water. When confronted, MDEQ then acknowledged that Flint had 'no corrosion control.'"

So, is it really incompetence, as Wyant is now claiming, or intentional cover-up?

That question has yet to be answered with certainty, but here is one fact to consider: In February, the EPA told the MDEQ that it could provide Flint with a corrosion expert who could come in and assist in uncovering the source of the city's lead problem.

That offer was ignored until September, when a collaborative effort by members of Flint's Clean Water Coalition, Edwards and his team of researchers at Virginia Tech, and the ACLU of Michigan led to an independent, citywide study the revealed the truth: Lead levels were much higher than what the city and state were claiming.

Lost trust

At this point, Wyant and the MDEQ have zero credibility.

As the emails obtained by Edwards and the ACLU of Michigan clearly show, the department knew as early as February that Flint had a lead problem.

When a scathing internal EPA memo written by Del Toral was obtained by the ACLU and published in July, MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel's public response was to call Del Toral a "rogue" employee and to assure the people of Flint they could "relax" when it came to concerns about lead in their water.

Likewise, the department's initial reaction to both the independent Virginia Tech study and a subsequent study by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Hurley Children's Hospital — who found the number of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood doubled after the switch to the river — was to attempt to discredit results that didn't comport with state and city claims that the water was safe.

When the MDEQ and Gov. Rick Snyder were finally forced to acknowledge, on Oct. 8, that the disastrous decision to switch to the Flint River — a cost-saving measure taken by the emergency manager given complete control of Flint by Snyder — had to be reversed, the governor continued to act as if this were all just some kind of governmental glitch.

A town's water supply had been contaminated with lead. Children would suffer from lower IQs, learning disabilities and behavioral problems as a result, scarred for the rest of their lives.

Even so, Snyder tried to maintain that there was no reason to find out who is to "blame" for this and hold them accountable. Instead, he maintained, an "after-action report" to assure similar mistakes wouldn't be made in the future would suffice.

To date, the only repercussion meted out by the MDEQ has been to reassign one employee.

That, clearly, is inadequate. It is also just as clear that the MDEQ can't be trusted to investigate itself.

Snyder has since been forced to step up his response and last week appointed an "independent" task force to investigate the issue.

Is that enough? State Sen. Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) doesn't think so. He is calling for a truly independent inquiry, meaning that Snyder wouldn't be the one choosing the investigators, with the power to put people under oath.

Ananich has also joined with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee in asking for the federal government to step in and investigate as well. Along with look at what the roles played by the state and city in creating this disaster, the two legislators want to know what responsibility the U.S. EPA bears as well.

"It has become clear to me that unacceptable lead levels were a failure of government at every level," Kildee wrote last week in a letter to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. "In order to restore confidence, and to ensure that these failures never happen again, I believe that the EPA needs to conduct a thorough investigation into the causes of the water problems in Flint."

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. He can be reached at 313-578-6834 or cguyette@aclumich.org.

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