News Guide: Panel cites state errors, intransigence on Flint
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The lead contamination of Flint’s water is “a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice,” according to a task force created by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to investigate the crisis.
In their final report Wednesday, investigators also chided Snyder for his refrain that the situation represents a failure of local, state and federal government, saying that suggests all three were equally culpable when the state was “fundamentally accountable.” It listed decisions made by state environmental regulators and state-appointed emergency managers who controlled the city.
The unsparing report also cited “intransigence and belligerence” by state officials unwilling to admit they had erred, and their dismissal of news reports and complaints from residents about the water’s smell, taste and color.
A look at the panel’s findings and recommendations:
Primary responsibility was unsurprisingly directed toward the state Department of Environmental Quality, whose director resigned in December after the panel’s initial report. Before Flint switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014, the DEQ misinterpreted federal regulations and advised the Flint Water Treatment Plant that anti-corrosive chemicals were not needed — which let lead leach from aging pipes into the drinking water. Task force co-chairman Chris Kolb called the decision “unimaginable,” particularly since the river water was more corrosive than Detroit’s Lake Huron water, which had corrosion controls.
Lead can be especially harmful to young children, causing problems that include developmental delays. About 200 children in Flint are known to have had elevated levels in their blood since the water switch. But the report called that likely a “profound underestimate.” Flint has about 11,900 children under age 6, based on Census estimates and Medicaid records, necessitating long-term spending on education, mental health, juvenile justice and nutrition.
HEALTH DEPARTMENT FAILURES
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was faulted for misunderstanding its own data on childhood blood lead levels and being reluctant to share it with outside experts, prolonging the crisis. The report says it also failed in its role as the main agency to protect kids from lead poisoning.
Snyder, who has apologized repeatedly for his administration’s role in the disaster, and his office were directly involved in some aspects of the crisis and briefed on some of the major decisions surrounding Flint water, the report says. He appointed emergency managers who made key decisions that led to and prolonged the crisis. He also hired the directors of three state departments that bear differing degrees of responsibility. The governor’s office itself received citizen complaints and was aware of press reports about water problems as early as May 2014, it said.
State managers appointed by Snyder to oversee the city — not locally elected officials — decided to use the Flint River and stick with it, partly based on guidance from the DEQ, Flint employees and consultants. Some local officials supported and even embraced the choices, but the “decisions were not theirs to make.” ″Who is accountable for the decisions made by the EMs in Flint?” the investigators said. “We believe the state must assume that accountability.” The report called for revising the emergency manager law to compensate for the “loss of checks and balances by representative government.”
The report labeled the crisis “a case of environmental injustice,” saying the impoverished, majority-black city “did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities.” It added that because Flint was being ruled by a state emergency manager, its citizens didn’t have the same opportunity to influence government decisions as people elsewhere. Environmental injustice doesn’t necessarily involve “malevolent intent” or blatant violations of civil rights, the report said. “It’s about equal treatment,” task force co-chairman Ken Sikkema said, “in this case equal environmental protection and public health protection, regardless of race, national origin or income.”
While accusing DEQ personnel of repeated bungling, the report noted another problem: too little money. An EPA audit and other evidence suggests the Michigan drinking water program has one of the lowest funding levels among six states overseen by the EPA’s regional office in Chicago, despite having “one of the largest, if not the largest, number of community water systems to regulate.” The DEQ’s share of the state’s general fund has plummeted since the 2000-01 fiscal year, when it was just under $100 million, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency. It bottomed out at $24.3 million in 2010-11 before rebounding and is nearly $47 million this year. The department has relied increasingly on federal funds and other sources. During the same 16-year period, the department’s full-time staff has fallen 25 percent. “If you want better oversight, you’re going to have to have more staff,” said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.
Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan.