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Will the water in Flint, Michigan, ever be safe again?

UPDATE: Michigan environmental agency head Dan Wyant resigns after task force report

Update (Dec. 29, 2015): Following the release of a report from an independent task force, which found the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was primarily responsible for not ensuring that the drinking water in Flint was safe, the agency's director, Dan Wyant, has resigned.

Upon receiving the report, Gov. Rick Snyder said he accepted Wyant's resignation and apologized — something Wyant stopped short of doing in an earlier interview with America Tonight.

"I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened," he said in a statementadding that Wyant's resignation was the first of changes he expected to make using information from the task force report.  

The report said Flint's water customers "were needlessly and tragically exposed to toxic levels of lead."

"They deserve a commitment to properly assess responsibility and ensure accountability," the task force wrote.

Wyant has not yet returned America Tonight's request for comment on his resignation.

Read the full letter below. 

FLINT, Mich. – The head of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality says he hasn’t regained the public’s trust after a water crisis in the city of Flint left tens of thousands of residents at risk of lead exposure.

Dan Wyant, the director of MDEQ, told America Tonight that his agency, which is tasked with ensuring safe drinking water in Michigan, must provide more transparency when it comes to the state’s water testing processes.

“We all need to do better … the state, the city and the federal government, our partners at [the Environmental Protection Agency],” he said. “And we have a plan in place that is addressing the issue that will eliminate the lead exposure and ensure safe drinking water in Flint.”

Wyant said the governor’s 10-point plan, which includes offering water filters, lead education and water testing to Flint residents, will provide short-term and long-term relief.

“It’s important that we recognize Flint deserves safe drinking water, and we’re committed to ensuring that is the case,” Wyant said. “What is at issue is lead-service lines [and] lead fixtures.”

While many have pointed the finger at the state for the problems in Flint, Wyant stopped short of offering a public apology to residents.

“I recognize Flint is anxious and concerned about [the water situation],” he said “and I feel the plan that we have addresses the issue, and we’re committed to seeing that plan through.”

Wyant has also made changes to his department in the wake of the Flint water crisis while the department is under review. In an exclusive interview, he told America Tonight that he reassigned the department's chief of drinking water and municipal assistance, Liane Shekter Smith, to a new post. She now helps process Freedom of Information Act requests, despite the fact that some requests will likely pertain to her own actions, internal records and involvement in the Flint crisis.

Many Flint residents, health officials and clean-water advocates blame MDEQ for failure to adequately treat the water and protect an already vulnerable population from lead exposure.

Marc Edwards, a civil engineer who specializes in water treatment, said the state should have taken the public health risks more seriously by using corrosion control. The chemical treatment would’ve better protected the lead service lines that transport water to people’s homes throughout the city, he said.

“If ever we don’t put chemicals in the water to keep the lead on the pipe and out of the water, it’s going to leach into the water,” he said. “We know from history that this can cause death, it can cause miscarriages, it can cause elevated blood lead – all kinds of health effects from that particular source of lead.”

In October, Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who won a National Science Foundation grant to research the water situation in Flint, uncovered internal government documents, including emails and memos, that showed the state reacted slowly despite being aware for months of the EPA’s “concern about the lead situation in Flint” and that at least one EPA lead expert expressed a “major” public health concern about the lack corrosion control to keep the public safe. He has documented his work and findings at a website named the Flint Water Study. 

During an October press conference, Wyant held assured the public the state was using corrosion control, but later said his statement was false. 

“Corrosion control is a term of art and there are multiple control techniques,” he told America Tonight. “I want to be real clear: Flint needed more corrosion control, and we understand that and optimizing corrosion control is necessary and its part of what we’re doing to address the issue going forward.”

Edwards, who was first contacted by a local mother in April 2015, said the state also ignored worries from the public and water safety guidance from his independent team of researchers at Virginia Tech.

“The kindest thing you could possibly say is they were completely incompetent, sloppy, lazy and uncaring,” he said. “I think it goes a little bit beyond that, frankly.”

The kindest thing you could possibly say is [MDEQ] were completely incompetent, sloppy, lazy and uncaring. I think it goes a little bit beyond that, frankly.

Marc Edwards

Civil engineer specializing in water treatment

Edwards’ team, which received its grant in September, is independently testing hundreds of Flint homes for lead exposure. It has consistently found significantly higher levels of lead exposure when compared with testing overseen by the state.

Wyant said the state’s testing methods were EPA-approved, but he said he now believes the protocol wasn’t protective of public health. 

“We recognize changes need to be made, but we are committed … to solving this problem,” Wyant said. “And we’ll stay through this action plan that addresses lead exposure to ensure that Flint has safe drinking water.”

Curt Guyette, who works as an investigative reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan, said the state downplayed the severity of the problem for months without taking action.

“They knew that it was a potential problem and their response was, ‘People can just relax,’” he said. “That, to me, is unconscionable.”

In November, the ACLU of Michigan announced plans for a federal lawsuit against the City of Flint and the State of Michigan for failure to protect Flint citizens.

The state is now being audited by the Environmental Protection Agency and reviewed by a bipartisan state task force.

Local officials representing the city of Flint, which was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager during the crisis, declined to comment on questions regarding its actions during the water crisis, citing pending litigation.

Guyette said a complete, independent investigation is necessary to find out how an entire city was put at risk.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that there was negligence here,” Guyette said. “The question at this point is: Was there gross negligence?”

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