Michigan state agencies overseen by Gov. Rick Snyder and a series of emergency managers appointed by the governor are to blame for allowing contaminated water into Flint homes, according to a report released Wednesday. The findings—the most sweeping indictment to date of the role state officials played in creating the crisis—were released as part of the task force’s final report on Flint, where residents were exposed to lead in their drinking water for over a year even as officials were telling them it was safe to drink.
The task force, appointed by the governor to investigate the Flint crisis, found that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), which did not require that Flint treat its water after switching from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River, “bears primary responsibility for the water contamination in Flint.” The report faults the agency for misinterpreting the federal lead and copper rule, which requires actions like corrosion control to minimize lead levels, and failing to investigate whether the Flint River was contributing to a high number of cases of Legionella, a respiratory disease that has led to 10 deaths in Flint but has not been fully linked to the water switch. Lead in children can be particularly devastating and cause developmental disabilities later in life.
The report also found that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services “failed to adequately and promptly act to protect public health" and said that the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversaw MDEQ, delayed enforcement of federal laws that would’ve ensured safe drinking water. But the task force placed much of the blame for the crisis on emergency managers appointed by Gov. Snyder to help the city handle its finances and said the governor’s office repeatedly relied on incorrect information from state officials on the Flint water situation.
“Emergency managers made key decisions that contributed to the crisis, from the use of the Flint River to delays in reconnecting to DWSD [Detroit Water and Sewage Department] once water quality problems were encountered,” the report states.
Flint, a financially struggling city that was once home to tens of thousands of automobile jobs, switched from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The city, however, did not properly treat the water, allowing lead from the city’s aging pipes to leach into the water supply. Flint residents began complaining about the quality of the water almost immediately. In October 2014, General Motors said it would no longer use the water at its Flint engine plant because it was corroding parts. Public officials failed to act until outside researchers began their own tests on lead levels in the city’s water as well as in blood samples of Flint’s children.
The state has since ordered a public health emergency, multiple state and federal agencies were charged with investigating the crisis, and a number of officials have been called to testify in front of Congress. Officials say the water in Flint is still not safe to drink and have been handing out water filters and bottled water.
In a statement, Gov. Snyder said a number of recommendations in the report, including increased information sharing among state agencies and an openness to outside research, are already being implemented.
“We are taking dozens of actions to change how we operate — not just to hold ourselves accountable, but to completely change state government’s accountability to the people we serve,” Snyder said in a statement.
The report did find one bright spot: the determination of Flint residents, who repeatedly questioned officials about the water supply even after the city told them it was OK to drink.
“Without their courage and persistence, this crisis likely never would have been brought to light and mitigation efforts never begun,” the report states.