By Kathleen Gray
April 13--LANSING -- A task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to investigate the Flint water crisis told lawmakers Tuesday that the situation in Flint was a failure of leadership in the state, a clear case of environmental injustice and a reason to change the state's emergency manager law.
There is no single piece of legislative action or a bill that could have prevented the crisis in Flint, Ken Sikkema, co-chairman of the task force and a former state senator told the legislative panel.
"When you talk about changing culture, there is no specific legislation that can do that. What is implicit and explicit," Sikkema said. "Cultural changes have to start at the top."
There were some recommendations from the task force, however, including: creating an ombudsman position that could provide an outlet for citizen complaints in communities with a state-appointed emergency manager. Sikkema also questioned whether actions like combining the departments of human service and community health, which happened in 2014, are contributing to the lack of accountability for state government.
The Department of Health and Human Services "is so large now ... . There could be a cabinet-level position focused on public health. We used to have a department of public health, then we put mental health with it, and then human services into it. Has the public health focus been downplayed and lost?"
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the state's emergency manager law also came under withering criticism from the task force Tuesday.
"We told the EPA that they need to clarify the Lead and Copper Rule. But whatever ambiguities might exist, they're not ambiguities that could justify what the MDEQ did," Sikkema said.
And Chris Kolb, a task force member and head of the Michigan Environmental Council, said the department's communications with Flint residents were unacceptable.
"The tone of communication from government was to deny and discredit individuals with a different opinion," he said. "Over and over, we saw this tone of deny and discredit, and in a public agency you have to be respectful of everybody."
That attitude resulted in a clear case of environmental injustice for a community with high levels of poverty and minority populations, Sikkema said.
"By virtue of state receivership, the residents of Flint didn't have a meaningful voice," he said.
On the emergency manager law, Sikkema said the task force interviewed all four of Flint's emergency managers and that they were in constant contact with the state Department of Treasury to talk about how to deal with financial problems in the city.
"But all the rest of it was ad hoc ... loosey-goosey," Sikkema said.
State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said perhaps finding an emergency manager with widespread expertise is "like looking for a unicorn."
One of the main problems with the emergency manager law, said Dr. Larry Reynolds, a Flint pediatrician and member of the task force, is that there was nowhere for city residents to turn when they had complaints of discolored and foul-smelling water when the city switched from water provided by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that was drawn from Lake Huron to the Flint River.
"They brought nothing and they left less," Reynolds said of the emergency managers.
The governor appointed the five-member task force in October, saying it would conduct an independent review of what led to the lead poisoning of Flint's drinking water and "offer recommendations for future guidelines to protect the health and safety of all state residents."
The legislative panel is trying to see if there is something the Legislature can do to make sure the situation in Flint never happens in another community. The hearing Tuesday was the panel's fourth hearing, following up on the heels of a nine-hour marathon session held in Flint two weeks ago. The panel is expected to hold more hearings before coming up with any recommendations for action by the Legislature.
The Flint water crisis happened when the more corrosive Flint River water caused lead to leach from pipes into some homes and residences in the city. The disastrous decision by the MDEQ to not add corrosion controls -- at a cost of $150 a day -- to the treated water has been cited as the primary cause of the crisis in Flint.
"This all could have been avoided if they had insisted that corrosion controls were put in place," Kolb said.
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