LANSING, Mich. – Michigan’s top environmental regulator resigned Tuesday after elevated blood-lead levels were found in children in Flint during a drinking water crisis that a task force blamed primarily on his agency.
Gov. Rick Snyder accepted the resignation of Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant and apologized for what occurred in Flint, which switched its drinking water supply in a cost-cutting move while under state financial management. Communications director Brad Wurfel also resigned, and Snyder said he plans additional personnel changes in the agency.
Wyant quit the same day a task force appointed by the Republican governor reported that the department was primarily responsible for the fiasco because it did not require Flint to keep corrosive water from leaching lead from service pipes into residents’ homes and belittled concerns from the public. Exposure to lead can cause behaviour problems and learning disabilities in children.
“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,” Snyder said in a written statement. “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.”
The five-member task force, which previously brought up concerns about a lack of organization in responding to the disaster, said the environmental department’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance has a “minimalist approach” to regulatory oversight in which “technical compliance” is sufficient. It faulted the agency for a “tone of scorn and derision” toward the public, including outside water and health experts who raised alarm bells.
The task force confirmed that the state did not follow the federal Lead and Copper Rule when Flint disconnected from Detroit’s water system in April 2014 and switched to Flint River water while waiting to connect to a new regional water authority.
Detroit’s water from Lake Huron had been treated for corrosion. State officials thought that after Flint made the transition to the river it could test the new water for lead over two six-month intervals to determine potential corrosion treatment instead of needing to immediately add corrosion controls. Flint returned to Detroit’s water in October after a public health emergency was declared.
The task force, which met with Wyant on Dec. 16, noted his substantial agreement with many of its conclusions but expressed disappointment with his “weak defence” regarding the federal rule.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a November memo that there are “differing possible interpretations” of the Lead and Copper Rule, explaining that it does not explicitly discuss a scenario like in Flint.
But task force members said, “Individuals and agencies responsible must be held accountable in a timely fashion.”
They also cited recent revelations of the Department of Health and Human Services’ apparent early knowledge of and silence about elevated blood-lead levels, and said the committee’s final report in early 2016 would review local governments’ decision processes while under emergency management.
“I know many Flint citizens are angry and want more than an apology. That’s why I’m taking the actions today to ensure a culture of openness and trust,” Snyder said.
Wyant, 56, led the Environmental Quality Department for nearly five years. He previously served as the state’s agricultural director under Republican Gov. John Engler and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
“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,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Democrat from Flint.
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