Michigan Environment Chief Resigns Over Flint Water Crisis

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By Nora Macaluso

Dec. 29 — Dan Wyant resigned as director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality after a governor-appointed task force looking into the crisis stemming from lead in the City of Flint water system laid most of the blame with the department, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said Dec. 29.

The task force “made me aware of some interim findings and corrective steps that I have decided to take immediately in order to restore trust in how the state keeps its citizens safe and informed,” Snyder said in a statement.

Snyder said he would make other personnel changes at the department. Brad Wurfel, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, also resigned, according to a Dec. 29 e-mail to reporters.

Task Force Blames Department

The task force, which includes environmental, health and policy experts, said in a Dec. 29 letter to Snyder that the department bore “primary responsibility for what happened in Flint.”

“Although many individuals and entities at state and local levels contributed to creating and prolonging the problem, MDEQ is the government agency that has responsibility to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan,” the letter said. “It failed in that responsibility and must be held accountable for that failure.”

The task force said the department's Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance has a culture in which “ ‘technical compliance' is considered sufficient to ensure safe drinking water,” a “minimalist approach to regulatory and oversight responsibility.”

The letter also criticized the department for responding to public concerns about city water with “aggressive dismissal, belittlement and attempts to discredit” individuals and their concerns and for an “overly legalistic” interpretation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, focusing on a “legally possible interpretation” of the law rather than on how to protect citizens from lead poisoning.

Scientists Invited to Help

Snyder said he directed the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health and Human Services to “invite every external scientist who has worked on this issue to be our partners in helping us improve Flint water.”

The problem came to light after researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute found evidence that city water contained high lead levels (202 DEN A-13, 10/20/15).

“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,” Snyder said. “And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience, because Flint is not the only city that has an aging infrastructure.”

Flint's problems began when the city, under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its water source to save money. The Department of Environmental Quality, a state auditor investigation found, should have required the city to implement corrosion controls to treat the corrosive Flint River water (248 DEN A-3, 12/29/15).

State and private aid has since helped the city switch back to the Detroit water system, which uses Lake Huron as a source.

The task force hasn't yet completed its work, and state and federal audits are continuing. Meanwhile, a group of city residents filed a lawsuit over the issue, saying officials knew there were problems with the water even as they made public statements that it was safe.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D), who represents Flint and has been calling for more action on the issue, said in a Dec. 29 statement: “If these personnel moves and change in tone lead to a more aggressive response and resources to improve public health, then we are finally making progress.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nora Macaluso in Lansing, Mich., at nmacaluso@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

 

The task force's letter is available at http://src.bna.com/bLo.