Tuesday, 05 January 2016 00:00

Apology, resignations over Flint are good first steps

Written by Nancy Kaffer | Detroit Free Press

In the quiet week between Christmas and New Year's Day, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality chief Dan Wyant resigned, followed quickly by department spokesman Brad Wurfel.

And Gov. Rick Snyder — finally — apologized for what happened in Flint.

For 18 months, Flint residents were exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water, after the city — while under state oversight and with MDEQ approval — began to draw its drinking water from the Flint River. Since the switch, an increasing percentage of Flint kids have elevated blood-lead levels. Lead poisoning causes irreversible behavioral and developmental difficulties.

So this apology, and these resignations, represent a sea change. But it's not enough.

For months, Snyder and his MDEQ attempted to dodge the reality that state policy wrought in the City of Flint. As reports, based not only on data compiled or gathered by outside researchers and journalists but on the state's own information, began to explain what was happening, Snyder's spokespeople and MDEQ officials worked to deflect, discredit and deny.

Last week's flurry of belated mea culpas came on the heels of a report by the state's Auditor General that seems to confirm the state — not local government officials — made the decision to draw the city's drinking water from the Flint River, a report from a Snyder-appointed task force assigned to postmortem the events of the last two years, and a crescendo of national media reports on the Flint water crisis.

These official reports are beginning to show what journalists and activists have long known or suspected: The chain of responsibility for Flint's decision to pull drinking water from the river, and for the local treatment plant's decision — made with MDEQ approval — not to add chemicals that prevent lead in old pipes from leaching into the water leads to the state.

But there's more to come, including the task force's full report, due early this year.

The unfolding story of how the city came to expose its 95,000 residents to lead-contaminated water shows a state government muddled by inertia, focused on compliance with the technical requirements of the law, at the expense of nearly everything else: common sense, empathy, native curiosity.

The task force's report found the MDEQ had a derisive attitude toward outside researchers and reporters whose work showed that something was amiss in Flint, calling the tone of public statements unacceptable. E-mails obtained by Virginia Tech University researcher Marc Edwards under the Freedom of Information Act show the same kind of dismissive derision, and other, more questionable decisions — like an e-mail from an MDEQ official to a Flint water worker expressing hopes that the next round of samples would include sufficient low-lead selections.

The task force called MDEQ's approach to regulation of drinking water "minimalist," and focused on "technical compliance" rather than true safety. Members were disappointed, as late as Dec. 16, to hear Wyant defend MDEQ's decision to sign off on Flint's water treatment plans.

An analysis by a state Department of Community Health epidemiologist, performed last July, showed a higher number of Flint kids with elevated blood-lead levels, according to documents obtained by Edwards. Based on those e-mails Edwards obtained, that report doesn't appear to have made it out of DCH; both the health department and MDEQ continued to insist, wrongly, that the state's data showed that any spike in blood-lead levels was seasonal. In fact, researchers seem to have started with the premise that there was nothing to be concerned about in Flint's water, and worked to prove that it was so.

But there's one DCH e-mail I can't stop thinking about.

"I’m just saying sensitivity to the local people who are so concerned about the babies there based on what they have for data is a context that is important, beyond the high profile and other issues," Brenda Fink, director of the state Department of Health and and Human Services Division of Family and Community Health, wrote to other DCH employees back in September. "There’s a people side to this issue that sometimes gets lost when something becomes so politicized."

Fink was right. That's the part that none of us should forget.

Flint Water Advisory Task Force letter to Gov. Rick Snyder

Link to original article from Detroit Free Press

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