This latest example of MDEQ’s incompetence and obfuscation, exposed in e-mails obtained by Progress Michigan, clearly demonstrates how hard MDEQ employees worked, to derail efforts of other caring government officials who wanted to protect the health of Flint residents.
In this case, Jim Henry of the Genesee County Health Department (GCHD) was demanding information by filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to shed light on a hypothesis that the uptick in Legionnaire’s Disease was due to the switch to Flint River water. Henry wrote on to MDEQ and city officials on March 10, 2015 (emphasis added):
In 2014, Genesee County experienced a significant increase of confirmed Legionella illnesses relative to previous years. Legionella can be a deadly, waterborne disease that typically affects the respiratory system. The increase of the illnesses closely corresponds with the timeframe of the switch to Flint River water. The majority of the cases reside or have an association with the city. Also, Mclaren Hospital identified and mitigated Legionella in their water system. This is rather glaring information and it needs to be looked into now, prior to the warmer summer months when Legionella is at its peak and we are potentially faced with a crisis. This situation has been explicitly explained to MDEQ and many of the city’s officials. I want to make sure, in writing that there are no misunderstandings regarding this significant and urgent public health issue.
The fact that GCHD felt obligated to use FOIA to get information, normally shared freely between health agencies, speaks to a new level of dysfunction beyond anything previously exposed.
The March 12 e-mail response from MDEQ to Jim Henry, dismisses the idea that legionella problems could be arising from poor operation of the treatment plant or distribution system (i.e, corrosion control):
The DEQ fully recognizes the public health threat posed to individuals that contract Legionnaires’ Disease with the understanding that the disease is not contracted by ingestion of potable water and therefore not regulated under the . federal Safe Drinking Water Act…. conclusions that legionella is coming from the public water system without the presentation of any substantiating evidence from your epidemiologic investigation appears premature and prejudice toward that end. It is highly unlikely that legionella would be present in treated water coming from the City of Flint water treatment plant given the treatment plant’s use of ozone along with complete treatment and chlorine disinfect contact time to comply with federal surface water treatment rules for potable water.
This MDEQ e-mail further offloads all responsibility for any legionella growth, to private plumbing and the city of Flint main breaks, even though the MDEQ lack of corrosion control is the currently hypothesized cause of the higher legionella (i.e., no corrosion control = more main breaks + less chlorine + more iron). MDEQ stated (emphasis added):
While total organic carbon levels in potable water may serve as a food source for bacteria growth in private plumbing system, water temperatures in the City’s distribution system are below Legionella growth range, and chlorine residual levels would also limit such growth. Our office agrees that water main breaks, water leaks, and system repairs are possible vectors for legionella to enter the public water system. These should be investigated as part of your epidemiology.
The short summary of the situation, sent from MDEQ’s Brad Wurfel up to the Governor’s staff, was that Henry was “beyond irresponsible.”
Essentially, Jim Henry with Genesee County Health is putting up the flare. He’s made the leap formally in his email that the uptick in cases is directly attributable to the river as a drinking water source – this is beyond irresponsible, given that is his department that has failed to do the necessary traceback work to provide any conclusive evidence of where the outbreak is sourced, and it also flies in the face of the very thing a drinking water system is designed to do.
Recall the date when MDEQ falsely stated to EPA that there was “optimal corrosion control” in Flint? February 27th, 2015. Thus, two weeks after that false statement, MDEQ did not volunteer the critical information about the lack of corrosion control to Jim Henry (GCHD). Even though it is very likely the cause of higher legionella.
We can now add Jim Henry to a growing list of government employees who were inquiring to understand the health concerns of Flint residents, and who were not given straight answers by MDEQ:
Henry (GCHD), Walling (City of Flint), Muchmore (Gov Office) and Dykema (DHHS), Del Toral (EPA)
If the MDEQ employees had expended 1% of their effort spent covering up problems, towards doing their job and installing corrosion control as the law required, the switch to Flint River would now have been deemed a success instead of the epic man-made disaster it is. At this point, it is has also become one of the most astonishing engineering and science ethics case studies in human history—right up there with the Washington D.C. Lead Crisis 2001-2004.
Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards