The Slatest

Michigan Knew Last Year That Flint’s Water Might Be Poisoned But Decided Not to Tell Anyone

Flint water
Stacks of bottled water waiting for distribution to the public at a Food Bank of Eastern Michigan warehouse in Flint on Dec. 16, 2015.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Michigan governor Rick Snyder declared last week that the poisonously high levels of lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan constitute a state of emergency. “The health and welfare of Flint residents is a top priority and we’re committed to a coordinated approach with resources from state agencies to address all aspects of this situation,” Snyder said. Reporting by Michigan Radio and research by the ACLU, though, alleges that the state government itself may have broken laws last year to cover up evidence of high lead levels that were turned up in tests it was supervising.

To recap the situation briefly: Flint was run from 2011 until April 2015 by emergency managers appointed by Snyder.* In 2014, to save money, the city began using the polluted Flint River as its water source. The drinking water from this new source created a number of health threats, including high levels of lead. (Lead can leach into drinking water from lead pipes.) A study released in September 2015 concluded that the change has put Flint children at significantly increased risk of lead poisoning. The city has now switched back to its old water supply, but lead levels are still high, and the state government is distributing bottled water to residents.

Research by the ACLU and Michigan Radio, meanwhile, seems to show that the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) rigged water test results in the summer of 2015—when many reports about problems with Flint’s water had already been published—to hide evidence of abnormally high lead levels. Both the ACLU and Michigan Radio cite the work of Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech engineering professor who has studied the situation in Flint closely. Per Edwards, Flint city officials broke federal laws by failing to collect water samples from homes that were at the highest risk of lead contaminiation and failed to conduct followup tests as required on homes whose samples showed high levels. And the state DEQ officials who were supervising the city’s collection process and testing the samples, Edwards says, made a very unusual move to reject two samples collected by the city—samples that, as it happens, would have pushed the test results above a level at which the city was required to alert residents about contamination. Moreover, the state DEQ notified the city on June 25, 2015—before the city had collected all its samples—that tests on the samples that had been collected appeared to show irregularly high lead levels. After this warning, the city collected another 30 samples. According to the ACLU and Edwards, none of these 30 samples collected after the warning showed irregularly high lead levels. Quite a coincidence!

Michigan DEQ director Dan Wyant resigned in December 2015 after a state task force report was highly critical of the agency’s handling of the crisis, as did DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel, whose wife Sara worked as a spokeswoman for Snyder and issued a number of statements related to the water crisis on the governor’s behalf. (Sara Wurfel stepped down to take a private-sector job in November 2015.) Brad Wurfel said in July 2015 that “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”

The U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Michigan says it is investigating whether the water-contamination disaster involved any criminal activity.

Snyder has since appointed the emergency manager who supervised Flint’s transition to Flint River water—Darnell Earley—as the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools.

*Correction, Jan. 29, 2016: This post originally implied in error that Flint is still run by an emergency manager. The city’s period of emergency manager control ended in April 2015.