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Retiring Michigan Regulator Claims Broken Water Pipes Caused Flint Crisis

(REUTERS/Rebecca Cook Files)

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Chris White Tech Reporter

One of the primary factors behind the Flint water crisis was a drastic spike in water main breaks in the city leading up to the scandal, according to a retiring Michigan environmental regulator.

Bryce Feighner, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and a water specialist, disputed claims that treating the city’s water would have fixed the problem. Water main breaks during the Polar Vortex winters of 2014 and 2015 was one of the primary factors investigators overlooked, Feighner said Thursday at a talk titled “Flint: What Really Happened?”

Breaks were one of several “confounding factors that you never hear anybody talk about,” said Feighner, who also noted that Flint had 312 main breaks in 2014 and 277 in 2015, but fewer than 160 in 2013 and 2016.

He also repeatedly dismissed accounts suggesting the use of phosphate inhibitors could have reduced lead levels when the city transitioned from using the Detroit’s water source to Flint River in April 2014.

Feighner, who is retiring in July to become a minister, argued that the sheer number of main breaks, the constant shuttling of water through an overburdened water system, and a general lack of funds for upkeep led to the crisis.

“You can have the most perfect, non-corrosive water in world — however you choose to define that … it’s going to strip every coating you’ve created off those pipes over the last several decades,” he said. “This was a major cause of the event.”

Feighner replaced Liane Shekter Smith in 2014 as head of the drinking water office. She is among several DEQ employees facing criminal charges related to the crisis.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, for instance, filed charges last July against three employees of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services and three others from the state DEQ.

Health and Human Services employees Nancy Peeler, Robert Scott and Corinne Miller, were charged with misconduct in office, as well as conspiring to commit misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty. The three state employees allegedly withheld or disregarded blood tests showing high lead levels in Flint residents.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also shared a large share of the blame for not reacting quickly enough to the incident.

One report published in March claims the EPA only acts to enforce clean drinking water regulations when public outrage reaches a deafening pitch, implying negligence on the part of agency officials.

Another report conducted in February 2016, by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) details how the EPA fails to force state regulators to comply with federal drinking water laws.

Nearly 2,000 citizens of Flint sued the agency for overlooking the problem until it was too late.

Their lawsuit claims the EPA failed to take the proper steps to ensure that state and local authorities were addressing the crisis. The defendants are seeking a civil action lawsuit for $722 million in damages.

Feighner was resolute in insisting the blame should set squarely on the city, not the state or even the EPA – he did argue the state’s decision to declare a state of emergency in Jan. 2016 only exacerbated the problem.

He said the emergency declaration created an incredible amount of attention, which ultimately caused people to stop using their water, thus allowing it to sit and seep additional amounts of lead as it lay stagnant in residential pipes.

Feighner also bemoaned the treatment of Shekter Smith and others in the legal system, as well as in the court of public opinion.

“They weren’t supposed to be drinking the water, so that’s good,” he said. “But, it’s incredible how people have interpreted those emergency directives and prolonged the recovery of the system as result.”

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