Michigan criticized for weak oversight of drinking water

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 04, 2016 2:53 PM

DETROIT (Reuters) - Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality failed to adequately monitor the city of Flint's switch of the source of its drinking water, which later became contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead, the state's auditor general said on Friday.

Flint, a predominantly black city of 100,000 about 60 miles (100 km) northwest of Detroit, was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager when it switched the source of its tap water from Detroit's system to the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. It switched back last October after tests found high levels of lead in blood samples taken from children.

Water from the Flint River, which was more corrosive than Detroit's, leached lead from the city's pipes, posing widespread health risks.

The scandal has sparked national outrage and led to calls for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder.

The Michigan DEQ initially failed to require Flint to use anti-corrosion chemicals in its water, according to the auditor's report.

"DEQ needs to improve its oversight and monitoring of community water supplies that implement a new water source or treatment process to ensure that DEQ meets its mission of promoting wise management of water resources to support healthy communities," the audit said, adding that failure to do so in Flint "may have contributed to elevated lead levels in the drinking water system."

In December, Snyder, who has repeatedly apologized for the state's poor handling of the crisis, accepted the resignation of DEQ chief Dan Wynant. Last month, Liane Shekter Smith, head of DEQ's drinking water and municipal assistance unit, was fired.

Snyder will testify before Congress on the issue on March 17.

Keith Creagh, who took over the DEQ, said on Friday the agency appreciated the state auditor's "thorough review."

"The department is committed to developing and implementing process and program improvements to address the findings in the report,” Creagh said.

However, the DEQ, in a response in the report, also called the federal lead and copper rule "ambiguous." The state agency said from now on it would require anyone changing their water source to have corrosion control treatments in place at that time.

The audit criticized the DEQ and the office of drinking water for relying too heavily on federal rules. "Throughout this audit, we became aware of many instances in which sole reliance on the (federal lead and copper rules) may not serve the best interest of Michigan citizens," according to the report.

(Reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by Matthew Lewis)