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As Residents Drank Toxic Water, State Workers in Flint Got Purified Water for Over a Year

In January 2015, when state officials were telling worried Flint residents their water was safe to drink, they also were arranging for coolers of purified water in Flint's State Office Building so employees wouldn't have to drink from the taps, according to state government emails released Thursday by the liberal group Progress Michigan.

By Paul Egan

In January 2015, when state officials were telling worried Flint residents their water was safe to drink, they also were arranging for coolers of purified water in Flint's State Office Building so employees wouldn't have to drink from the taps, according to state government emails released Thursday by the liberal group Progress Michigan.

A Jan. 7, 2015, notice from the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which oversees state office buildings, references a notice about a violation of drinking water standards that had recently been sent out by the city of Flint.

"While the city of Flint states that corrective actions are not necessary, DTMB is in the process of providing a water cooler on each occupied floor, positioned near the water fountain, so you can choose which water to drink," said the notice.

"The coolers will arrive today and will be provided as long as the public water does not meet treatment requirements."

State officials could not immediately answer emailed questions about the water purchases, including how long the state continued to buy bottled water for state employees in Flint while telling Flint residents the water was safe to drink. An official said the administration was "looking into these issues."

Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, said it appears the state was not as slow as initially thought in responding to the Flint drinking water crisis.

"Sadly, the only response was to protect the Snyder administration from future liability and not to protect the children of Flint," Scott said. "While residents were being told to relax and not worry about the water, the Snyder administration was taking steps to limit exposure in its own building."

After months of downplaying concerns, including warnings from researchers about high lead levels in both the drinking water and in the blood of Flint children, the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledged around Oct. 1 a problem that is now a full-blown public health crisis garnering international headlines. Michigan DEQ Director Dan Wyant resigned in December after acknowledging officials failed to require the city to use needed corrosion control chemicals when they switched the source of their supply to Lake Huron water treated by Detroit to Flint River water treated at the Flint water treatment plant.

The lack of corrosion controls caused lead to leach from pipes, joints and fixtures into an unknown number of Flint households beginning in April 2014, when the city began using the Flint River as a temporary cost-cutting move while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. Flint customers were switched back to Detroit in October, but the potential danger persists because of damage to the water distribution infrastructure.

Snyder declared a state of emergency Jan. 5 and a week later called out the Michigan National Guard to help distribute bottled water and water filters in Flint. The state of emergency, which was set to expire next week, was extended Thursday through April 14.

Included in the email string obtained by Progress Michigan is an email from Mike Prysby, a district engineer in the DEQ's drinking water division, whose name had surfaced earlier in connection with the Flint drinking water public health crisis.

Prysby, who had been forwarded an email from other state officials asking whether he would know more about the safety of Flint's drinking water by March 1, forwarded the email to Stephen Busch, the district supervisor, who on Jan. 22 of this year was suspended without pay for his role in the drinking water catastrophe.

"Appears certain state departments are concerned with Flint's WQ (water quality)," Prysby said in the email to Busch. "I will return the call ... "

On Jan. 23, 2015, the Detroit Free Press ran a story, accompanied by a photo of Flint residents holding up jugs of brown water, that said concerns of city residents ranged from the taste, appearance and odor of the water to unexplained rashes and illnesses, even sick pets. Concerns about lead had not been raised then, though experts now say the color of the water _ and the fact GM had announced it stopped using it because it was too corrosive to metal parts _ should have been a tip-off that metals, including lead, were leaching into the water.

The January 2015 Free Press story noted that in August and September, the city issued three advisories to boil Flint water after detecting coliform bacteria.

Just before Christmas, residents received notices that state tests indicated higher-than-acceptable levels of trihalomethane, or TTHM, a by-product of the chlorine disinfectants added to the water to kill the bacteria.

The article said that despite a recent alert about TTHM levels having exceeded federal guidelines in 2014, city officials maintained the water was safe. The article said that Michigan DEQ officials gave the same assurances at a meeting at Flint City Hall on Jan. 21.

Prysby represented the DEQ at that Flint City Hall meeting and told residents the chlorine did its job and cleaned the water of microbial pathogens that can cause disease within days, the article said. That meant the water was safe for healthy people to drink for a short time, Prysby was quoted as saying.

The trade-off, Prysby said, was TTHM, possibly a danger for the very young, the very old, or the very sick if they ingest it long-term, he added.

"But we're talking decades," he said, adding that those who are worried should talk to their doctors.

(c)2016 Detroit Free Press

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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