EPA: Michigan should boost water safety in Flint, statewide

Posted at 5:08 AM, Oct 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-27 11:24:36-04

Staff and funding shortages and poor data management are preventing Michigan environmental regulators from making sure that state residents have safe drinking water, federal officials said Thursday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said deficiencies in Michigan's drinking water operations aren't limited to Flint, notorious for lead contamination of its system for 18 months starting in spring 2014. Investigations primarily blamed the state Department of Environmental Quality, which failed to require anti-corrosion pipeline treatments when the city changed its water source.

In its newly released report, the EPA evaluated the statewide effectiveness of Michigan's safe drinking water program. The study was based largely on examination of the state environmental department's files from October 2013 through September 2015, when the Flint crisis was at its height.

The review "revealed a number of significant challenges," the report said. Among them: too little money, too few people, and inadequate reporting and management of electronic data.

"Staff departures and retirements have caused a significant loss in expertise and technical knowledge ... which presents a threat to the future implementation of an effective program," the report said, adding that the department "must focus on obtaining long-term sources of funding."

Water data management is "inefficient and antiquated," the report said, and efforts to fix the problem have been hampered by concentration of information technology staff into "a broad agency department without drinking water expertise."

"Laboratory reporting is very inefficient," it said, urging the department to make better use of electronic data systems.

The department also failed to require full compliance with its lead and copper pollution rule and sometimes did not report instances when lead content exceeded standards, the report said. State officials must make sure violation notices are issued and the public informed, it said.

Tiffany Brown, spokeswoman for the Michigan department, said the audit raised issues that were two years old, many of which have been addressed.

But the department "will use the recommendations indicated in the report to further improve the Drinking Water Program to better ensure the public's health and safety," Brown said.

Michigan is among the states that have their own drinking water rules, which must be at least as stringent as the federal government's. EPA periodically assesses how well the states are performing. Agency officials visited the state department's Lansing office in April 2016.

Their report was based on a review of documents for 25 of more than 10,000 regulated public water systems in Michigan, including Flint's.

It echoed previous findings that the Flint crisis resulted partly from the state department's "failure to properly oversee and manage" the city's switch from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014.

The river water was not treated to prevent corrosion, enabling lead to leach from old pipes and fixtures. The contamination caused elevated lead levels in children's blood and left residents to use filtered or bottled water for drinking and bathing. Water quality has greatly improved since the city resumed using Detroit water in 2015, experts said.