Thursday, January 28, 2016

Amid Denials, State Workers in Flint Got Clean Water
Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press
6:59 p.m. EST January 28, 2016

In January of 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 e-mails 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."

Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for DTMB, said the water coolers were provided in response to the city health notice in late December or early January, which he acknowledged was about a contamination issue the city said had already subsided. The state continued to provide the coolers of purified water, right up to today, because "there were more findings as we went along," Buhs said.

Buhs said his department never told state workers the tap water was unsafe to drink, but only provided an alternative, as a landlord would do for tenants.

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 of 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 on 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 e-mail string obtained by Progress Michigan is an e-mail 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 e-mail from other state officials asking whether he would know more about the safety of Flint's drinking water by March 1, forwarded the e-mail 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 e-mail to Busch. "I will return the call ..."

On Jan. 23, 2015, the 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 (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.

State staff in Flint got water before crisis emerged

Jonathan Oosting, The Detroit News
10:36 p.m. EST January 28, 2016

Lansing — The state provided its workers in Flint with bottled water in January 2015, 10 months before officials would tell residents the water was not safe to drink, according to state emails released Thursday by liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan.

The decision was unrelated to elevated lead levels that were later found in Flint’s drinking water, said Caleb Buhs, a spokesman for the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

Instead, the management and budget department decided to provide water coolers in a Flint state office building after the city sent out a notice saying it had been found in violation of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act because of high levels of disinfection byproducts.

“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 a Jan. 7, 2015 Flint Water Advisory from the the state management and budget department’s facilities division obtained under a Progress Michigan open records request.

“This was DTMB acting as a manager of the building and as a customer of Flint water,” Buhs said.

“We received this notice and took steps for the tenants of that building.”

The management and budget office continued to provide water coolers in the Flint state office building since January 2015, he said. The decision occurred shortly before Gov. Rick Snyder awarded the city a $2 million grant to improve its water system, Buhs noted.

The state worked with the city to address the problems, as the $2 million grant for water infrastructure makes clear, Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said late Thursday.

The city was required to send out the violation notice after the state Department of Environmental Quality cited Flint for unusually high levels of trihalomethanes, or TTHM, a byproduct of the water chlorination process.

“As we know now, there was a failure at all levels of government regarding Flint water,” Murray said. “Once Gov. Snyder became aware of the lead problems, he responded aggressively. We continue to work to address the immediate needs of the people in Flint as well as potential long-term problems caused by the lead issue.”

But Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal group Progress Michigan, said the DTMB memo was evidence “the state wasn’t as slow as we first thought in responding to the Flint Water Crisis.”

“Sadly, the only response was to protect the Snyder administration from future liability and not to protect the children of Flint from lead poisoning,” 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.”

Former DEQ Director Dan Wyant and his spokesman resigned in late December after acknowledging the department failed to require the addition of proper corrosion controls to Flint River water, which the city began using in April of 2014.

A task force appointed by Snyder placed much of the blame for the Flint crisis on the DEQ and said the agency’s response to public complaints about the drinking water “was often one of aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit” independent studies that revealed elevated lead levels.

State health official confirmed lead problems on Oct. 1 and said residents should not drink the water from their taps. Flint switched back to Detroit water on Oct 16, but the water is still not considered safe to drink.

A Jan. 9 email obtained by Progress Michigan shows Michael Prysby, a district engineer with DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, was aware of the DTMB decision.

“Appears certain state departments are concerned with Flint’s WQ (water quality),” he wrote in a memo to other DEQ staffers, including Stephen Busch and Liane Shekter Smith, who were later reassigned for failures related to the Flint water crisis.

The state suspended two unnamed employees last week pending an investigation that could lead to further discipline.

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