The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality made crucial errors as the city of Flint began using a new drinking water source that would become contaminated with lead, but the rules the agency failed to heed may not be strong enough to protect the public, auditors said Friday.
A report by the state auditor general found that staffers in the DEQ's drinking water office failed to order the city to treat its water with anti-corrosion chemicals as it switched to Flint River in April 2014. The city had been using Lake Huron water from Detroit but made the change to save money, planning eventually to join a consortium that would have its own pipeline to the lake.
The corrosive river water scraped away lead from aging pipes that tainted water in some homes and schools, and has been blamed for elevated lead levels in some children's bloodstreams.
"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.
The department has acknowledged that its staffers who worked with Flint misread federal regulations designed to prevent lead and copper pollution of drinking water supplies. Gov. Rick Snyder has repeatedly apologized for the state's response and three DEQ employees, including the director, have lost their jobs as a result.
Director Keith Creagh said Friday the DEQ appreciates the auditor general's "thorough review" and added, "The department is committed to developing and implementing process and program improvements to address the findings in the report."
But the DEQ said the federal Lead and Copper Rule was ambiguous, and the auditors agreed, saying it and Michigan's Safe Water Drinking Act needed improvements.
The federal rule does not require using indicators such as blood screenings to monitor for human exposure to lead, the audit said. Sampling of drinking water that does take place relies mostly on samples from single-family residences, leaving out other locations such as schools and hospitals.
Additionally, many samples are taken by residents themselves, which could mean that incorrect procedures are used, the report said.
Other DEQ shortcomings it noted included failure to ensure that Flint drew enough water samples for testing from high-risk homes with lead pipes or fixtures. The agency said it would "put in place appropriate audit procedures that will increase the confidence and accuracy of water supply submissions."
DEQ also does not conduct surveillance visits, sanitary surveys and other monitoring within required time frames, a problem in places other than Flint, the report said. Some surveys are past due by anywhere from two months to six years.
The department said 95 percent of sanitary surveys and 64 percent of surveillance visits meet required deadlines, exceeding goals set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Another section of the audit said the DEQ does not levy sufficient fees on local water systems to provide enough money for adequate state oversight.
Snyder, addressing a committee of experts charged with finding solutions to the Flint crisis, said Friday it's taking longer than expected to locate all the lead pipes in the city. He said he'd also like to set a higher water quality standard than the Federal Lead and Copper Rule and the state is "continuing to do the work on finding all these lead lines."
Crews in Flint are starting to dig up old lead pipes connecting water mains to homes. Mayor Karen Weaver said work starting Friday will target lead service lines at homes in neighborhoods with the highest number of children under 6 years old, senior citizens, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems and homes where water tests indicate high levels of lead at the tap.
A crew dug up a service line Thursday leading to a Flint home as part of a separate effort funded by group of private, charitable, business and community groups.
More than two dozen Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, visited Flint on Friday to hear from families affected by the water crisis.
Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan said the visit allowed lawmakers to hear about Flint's problems firsthand and also served to keep up pressure for Congress to act on a stalled bill aimed at helping the city. Kildee criticized Senate Republicans for delaying the bill and noted that lawmakers who have visited Flint in recent weeks were all Democrats.
Associated Press writer Michael Gerstein in Lansing, Michigan, and Matthew Daly in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.