In the past few weeks, the problem of lead in Flint’s drinking water has quickly gone from being a story largely ignored by the mainstream media to a scandal that’s making headlines nationally.
Faced with overwhelming evidence, state and local officials who adamantly insisted for months that there was no problem have been forced to admit that their unequivocal assurances were completely false.
For that reason, the U.S. EPA needs to quickly respond to last week’s formal petition calling upon the agency to step in and take a greater role in assuring that Flint’s water is safe. Also needed is an investigation by an outside entity with subpoena powers to determine if laws were broken and, if so, who broke them.
One thing is certain: The MDEQ has failed miserably in its obligation to ensure that the public health is being protected. The agency’s consistent denials that a danger existed only served to create a false sense of security, keeping people from taking the actions needed to help limit their exposure to a potent neurotoxin that can cause irreversible damage — especially to children.
It was only in July, following the publication of an EPA internal memo sounding the alarm of lead in Flint’s water, that Brad Wurfel, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, was telling one reporter this: “Let me start here — anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”
If a small group of citizens, working in conjunction with researchers at Virginia Tech and the ACLU of Michigan, had been willing to swallow that claim, children in Flint would still be getting lead poisoned.
Instead, they combined forces to conduct a comprehensive independent study of their own. When those test results began to be published in late August, proving that the highly corrosive Flint River was causing high levels of lead to leach into the city’s drinking water, Wurfel again went on the attack.
When questioned about Virginia Tech’s study by a reporter from the Flint Journal, Wurfel replied with an email that, in part, claimed:
When I said we were unsure how the Virginia Tech team got its results, that’s not the same as being surprised that they got them. … this group specializes in looking for high lead problems. They pull that rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go. Nobody should be surprised when the rabbit comes out of the hat, even if they can’t figure out how it is done. … While the state appreciates academic participation in this discussion, offering broad, dire public health advice based on some quick testing could be seen as fanning political flames irresponsibly. Residents of Flint concerned about the health of their community don’t need more of that.
When doctors at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint followed up on the Virginia Tech study by doing an analysis of lead blood levels in children, they found that, since an appointed emergency manager made the cost-cutting decision in April 2014 to leave the Detroit system and start using the Flint River as the city’s source of drinking water, the number of children with elevated levels in their blood doubled.
That study both built upon and validated Virginia Tech’s research.
And what was the state’s response to that damning evidence?
Initially, another knee-jerk attempt to deny and discredit.
Wurfel again went on the attack, claiming the water controversy is becoming “near-hysteria.”
“I wouldn’t call them irresponsible. I would call them unfortunate,” Wurfel said of the Hurley study.
By the time the Genesee County Health Department declared a public health emergency last Thursday, Gov. Rick Snyder and his team were finally forced to concede the truth: Flint’s water is a danger to its residents, particularly children and pregnant women.
It was a Snyder-appointed emergency manager who made the monumentally disastrous decision to switch to the river in an attempt to balance Flint’s books — at any cost. And it was Snyder’s Department of Environmental Quality that oversaw city water tests which — based on the Virginia Tech study — were wildly inaccurate, and, as our investigation found, conducted in a way that seems intentionally designed to minimize the amount of lead detected.
Now the same cast of characters is asking everyone to believe they will get things right this time.
But they have proved they can’t be trusted to ensure the public’s well-being. Which is why the ACLU of Michigan joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council and an array of citizen groups, including the Coalition for Clean Water, to formally petition the U.S. EPA last week to step in and provide greater oversight of Flint’s water treatment measures and testing.
But that alone is not enough.
In Wurfel’s carefully managed press conference last week, when plans for further testing and distribution of water filters were announced by the state, some important questions were either unasked or successfully evaded.
Here are some of them:
• What, exactly, was done before the switch to study the Flint River to determine what effects it would have on the city’s infrastructure? How could they not know how dangerous the river water would be? Was it incompetence or malfeasance?
• Why did the city’s tests, conducted under the eye of the MDEQ, not reveal the same levels of lead found by Virginia Tech?
• Flint Mayor Dayne Walling says the use of corrosion control chemicals — which could have mitigated the problem — was “interrupted” after the switch. The state said publicly last week that corrosion control — which is sorely needed to help keep lead from pipes leaching into the water — was used. But in documents we’ve obtained, the exact opposite was stated by an MDEQ official. What’s the truth?
It is good that the state, however reluctantly, has finally admitted there is a problem. But it continues to drag its feet in taking the immediate action that would provide the city with the safest water: Switching back to the Detroit system.
Even if that does happen, however, this story won’t be over until everyone responsible for the lead poisoning of Flint’s children is identified and held fully accountable.
Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work focuses on emergency management and open government.