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Flint Task Force Finds Fault at the Top

Flint Task Force Finds Fault at the Top

This is the thanks I get? Gov. Rick Snyder's own task force on Flint water quality is blaming his Administration.

This is the thanks I get? Gov. Rick Snyder's own task force on Flint water quality is blaming his Administration.

  • State-appointed task force places blame on the state's own handling of the disaster;
  • The report especially criticizes Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality;
  • Flint Mayor claims city continues to suffer from a lack of remedial measures;
  • For our earlier reporting on the Flint saga, click here.

by JOHN GREGERSON | April 7, 2016

It may not be the last word on Flint's epic lead-contaminated water crisis, but an investigatory task force appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in October last week issued a blistering, 116-page report that places blame for the disaster squarely on the shoulders of Snyder's own administration. The report describes Flint as “a story of government government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, and environmental injustice.”

Although the five-member task force concluded that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Genesee County (MI) Health Dept., Flint's state-appointed emergency managers and others all erred, “The state is fundamentally accountable for what happened in Flint,” the report says.

(This is) a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, and environmental injustice
— Flint Water Advisory Task Force, Final Report

Among the task force's findings: Snyder's staff engaged in rounds of “whack a mole” when presented with evidence of contaminated water in Flint. “Every time the issue came up, they asked about it... (were) told it's being taken care of... (or) it's solved, and then another issue would come up,” said task force member Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, speaking last week at a press conference. “At some point you've got to say, 'Wait a second. My gut's telling me something's wrong.'”

The task force places particular blame on Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), which had “primary responsibility for the water contamination in Flint,” according to the report. Following Flint's 2014 decision to draw drinking water from the Flint River rather than Detroit's water system, as it had for years, MDEQ apparently misinterpreted federal guidelines. As a result, the agency failed to notify Flint officials to treat water from the new source with chemicals to prevent lead piping from corroding. Without those relatively inexpensive chemicals, lead soon leached into homes, schools and businesses. Upon discovering elevated levels of the toxic substance during subsequent tests, MDEQ then failed to take action.

When confronted with evidence of its failures, MDEQ responded publicly through formal communications with a degree of intransigence and belligerence that has no place in government,” the report says.

To date, two MDEQ executives have resigned and a third executive has been fired. “They missed the boat completely,” Kolb said. “They never backed off on those decisions no matter how many red flags they saw."

The report, based on 66 interviews and 20 meetings among task force members over a period of months, also alleges that racism played a role in Michigan's failure to respond to the crisis sooner, despite mounting complaints among the city's 100,000 residents. “Flint residents, who are majority black or African-American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities,” the report concludes.

“Environmental injustice is not about overt acts of racism,” said task force member and former state senator Ken Sikkema. “It's about equal treatment.”

Words, deeds, dollars & sense

In all, the report resulted in 44 recommendations, 25 of which “we're already working on,” the governor told reporters. “There are nine we're still checking on and... 10 that are being referred to other organizations.” Corrective measures will occur over an “extended period of time and for many years," he added. “This is a problem I have made a commitment to fix.”

Mayor Weaver still seeks action.

Mayor Weaver still seeks action.

For her part, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver is awaiting action rather than words. “While this report is welcomed, without funding from the Michigan legislature and Congress, these are only recommendations and promises that do absolutely nothing to get Flint on the road to recovery,” she said in a statement. “Our residents were poisoned by drinking lead-laced water for 18 months and still cannot use the water coming out of their taps for drinking, cooking or just brushing their teeth... Yet there has been absolutely no sense of urgency by state and federal elected officials to get Flint the funding it needs.”

Even now, state lawmakers have yet to approve $127 million in funding that Gov. Snyder had requested for remedial measures in Flint, added Weaver. She also noted that her office was given no advance notice about the report's content or the timing of its release. “The continued failure to communicate with the elected officials here in Flint is simply astonishing,” she said.

"Astonishing", of course, is a relative term. For this story, it seems par for the course.

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