Flint Investigation Finds State Most Responsible for Water Crisis

A panel appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledges missteps at all levels of government, but says the state's governor, agencies and emergency managers are chiefly to blame.
by | March 23, 2016
This March 21, 2016, file photo shows the Flint Water Plant water tower in Flint, Mich. A task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder released a report Wednesday, March 23, 2016, saying failures and delays within all levels of government, particularly in his administration, led residents to be "needlessly and tragically" exposed to Flint's lead-contaminated water crisis because of decisions made by its environmental regulators and state-appointed emergency managers. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) (AP/Carlos Osorio)

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has repeatedly said that the lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water was a failure of all levels of government. But Wednesday, an expert panel picked by the governor to study the crisis held the state of Michigan chiefly responsible and called attempts to spread the blame “inappropriate.”

“Though it may be technically true that all levels of government failed, the state’s responsibilities should not be deflected,” wrote the Flint Water Advisory Advisory Task Force in a 116-page report. “The causes of the crisis lie primarily at the feet of the state by virtue of its agencies’ failures and its appointed emergency managers’ misjudgments.”

The five-member group task force detailed the many ways that the state, in particular, caused and then exacerbated the Flint water crisis.

Governor in the Dark

Some of the blame, the experts wrote, is on the governor.

“The governor’s office continued to rely on incorrect information provided by [state agencies] despite mounting evidence from outside experts and months of citizens’ complaints throughout the Flint water crisis,” the group wrote.

The governor and his staff dealt with water problems in Flint as early as May 2014, the month after the water had been switched. Gubernatorial staff discussed, for example, residents' complaints about the odor, color and taste of the water, along with General Motors' decision to switch to another water source for one if its factories. By the middle of summer 2015, they discussed the lead-contamination issue, according to the report.

But the governor himself said he first learned that his agencies had been wrong about the issue of lead in Flint's water after Sept. 28 of last year. The next day, the Detroit Free Press ran a story supporting the claims that Flint's water was contaminated with lead. Flint switched its water source back two weeks later.

State government also bears the responsibility, the task force said, because it was a Snyder-appointed emergency manager, not local officials, who decided to switch Flint’s water supply -- the move that triggered the crisis. And even once problems surfaced, the state’s treasury department effectively blocked Flint from returning to its original water source because of cost concerns.

An emergency manager switched the source of Flint's drinking water in April 2014 from Detroit’s Lake Huron to the Flint River. But because Flint didn't add anti-corrosive chemicals to the water -- as required by the federal government -- the new water source corroded the pipes connecting buildings to water mains. Because of the lingering damage to the pipes, lead is still getting into the water even though Flint switched back to Detroit water in October 2015.

During Snyder’s tenure, the Republican-led legislature gave the state the power to put governor-appointed emergency managers in control of financially troubled local governments. But Snyder’s task force concluded that state-appointed emergency managers are ill-equipped to deal with nonfinancial matters. Nineteen states allow the state to intervene in the finances of distressed cities, although Michigan allows for some of the most aggressive state actions.

State Environmental Agency's Neglect

The “primary responsibility for the Flint water crisis,” according to the five-person task force, rests with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), the chief regulator for local drinking water systems.

The agency initially told the city it did not need to add anti-corrosion chemicals when it switched water sources and then reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that Flint was using them when it in fact was not. Then, the state agency was slow to require Flint to add the chemicals, even after the EPA advised them to do so. Once problems with the new water surfaced, the agency was “dismissive and unresponsive” to public concerns, the experts wrote.

“MDEQ caused this crisis to happen,” the panel said. “Moreover, when confronted with evidence of its failures, MDEQ responded publicly through formal communications with a degree of intransigence and belligerence that has no place in government.”

The panel expressed similar concerns in a December letter to Snyder. Dan Wyant, the director of MDEQ, resigned in the wake of the criticism, as did the agency’s chief spokesman. Two other agency employees were suspended.

Health and Human Services Department's Hidden Data

The task force also took issue with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for missing opportunities to detect public health problems in Flint.

The agency collects information on children’s lead blood tests throughout the state, but it showed “no urgency” in sharing those results with the public or analyzing them in a timely manner. Agency researchers didn’t look at 2014 lead levels in Flint until Snyder’s chief of staff asked them to in July 2015. An agency epidemiologist then detected high levels of lead in Flint, but a data manager conducting a separate analysis did not. The conflicting reports weren’t analyzed, and the agency denied there were high lead levels for another two months.

Even when outside researchers presented evidence of an outbreak, the agency didn't share its data with them. Instead, Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards had to use only data from the Hurley Medical Center, where Hanna-Attisha practices. Only after Hurley released its data did the state health agency agree that the Flint lead levels were abnormally high.

Emergency Manager Law Questioned

The task force said the Flint water crisis highlights much bigger problems with Michigan’s emergency manager law.

That law allowed the state, for example, to take over Detroit, force it into the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history and overhaul the city's government. The Detroit turnaround had been one of the highlights of Snyder’s governorship.

But there was no "quick" fix for Flint, which was under the control of emergency managers from 2002 to 2004 and again from 2011 to 2015. Four different emergency managers oversaw Flint during the last takeover.

The task force recommends Michigan lawmakers change the emergency manager law, particularly to make sure that local residents have input in major decisions. That could include creating an ombudsman position in state government to represent local concerns or adding an appeals process for decisions made by the emergency manager. In any event, the task force wrote, emergency managers should have better support from experts in areas outside of finance.

“Regardless of any successes of the [emergency manager] process in other Michigan cities, this failure must force us to review the law and the general approach to financial problems," the panel wrote. "Government approaches to cities in fiscal distress must balance fiscal responsibility with the equally important need to address quality of life, economic development and infrastructure maintenance and provision.”

The task force also criticized the city of Flint for not being ready to switch to a new water source, for not following federal rules on testing for lead in drinking water and for not investing enough in its drinking water system before the crisis. Likewise, the group faulted the U.S. EPA for not acting aggressively enough in enforcing uniform standards across the country and, specifically, for deferring too much to MDEQ.

The members of the task force, which Snyder formed in October, are: Matthew Davis, a pediatrician and a University of Michigan public policy professor; Chris Kolb, a former state lawmaker and Ann Arbor city council member who is now president of the Michigan Environmental Council; Lawrence Reynolds, a Flint pediatrician; Eric Rothstein, a water consultant who, among other things, advised Jefferson County, Ala., in its bankruptcy proceedings; and Ken Sikkema, a former state senator.