LANSING, Michigan – Michigan should consider abandoning its one-person emergency management structure and instead install a team of three experts when deficit-ridden municipalities and school districts fall under state control, according to a report released Wednesday by a legislative committee that investigated Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis.
Nine current or former government workers have been criminally charged since doctors detected elevated levels of lead in some children due to the discolored and smelly water supply in the impoverished city of nearly 100,000.
The contamination occurred after Flint switched from the metropolitan Detroit utility system to a temporary water source, the Flint River, in 2014. The move under state emergency management was intended to be a temporary cost-saving measure until a new local pipeline could be built. But as the untreated water coursed through old pipes, toxic lead leached into the residential water supply.
The report issued by a panel of four Republicans and two Democrats makes a raft of recommendations intended to prevent a repeat of such a crisis in the state.
It suggests replacing lead service pipes statewide, lifting emergency managers’ general immunity from civil lawsuits and prohibiting them from using cost as the primary factor in any decision that will affect public health and safety. Other recommendations include the adoption of the country’s toughest lead-in-water rules, increased transparency about water rates and shut-off practices, and the creation of a commission to oversee the state Department of Environmental Quality, which has been deemed primarily responsible for Flint’s water problems.
It also suggests that a community’s water source should not be changed without voter approval.
“Not all of our members have agreed with everything in it,” the committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. Jim Stamas, said, “but at the same time I think we’ve covered a very large part of what the different issues were.”
Stamas, of Midland, said at least 14 of the 36 proposals can be enacted in “the coming months,” with some Flint-specific bills approved by the Senate as early as Thursday.
A 2012 emergency manager law has been pinpointed as a factor in the city’s water crisis, and the panel’s report recommends that emergency managers be replaced with financial management teams that include a financial expert, a local government operations expert and an ombudsman. Emergency managers would also have to post a $5 million bond that would be forfeited for negligence or misconduct on the job and host a website to solicit and respond to public comments on their key decisions.
“The more we encourage … oversight and citizen involvement, the better our government’s going to be,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat who sat on the committee.
The proposed lead-testing standards are similar to a plan unveiled in the spring by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who has apologized for his administration’s role in causing and prolonging the crisis.
Under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules, water systems nationwide must move to control corrosion if lead concentrations exceed 15 parts per billion in more than 10 percent of customer taps sampled. Michigan would move by 2020 to a limit of 10 parts per billion. Also, the “action level” would be triggered in communities where there is a 50 percent increase in samples with lead levels of at least 5 parts per billion.
The report also calls for:
— testing water for lead in schools and other facilities for children and fragile adults;
— the mandatory disclosure of lead services lines in home sales and rental contracts;
— a constitutional amendment making it easier to discipline state employees and the appointment of an ombudsman to hear confidential state employee reports of misconduct;
— enhanced criminal penalties for public officials whose misconduct causes bodily harm to others;
— more robust lead screening of school-age children;
— assessing children’s past lead exposure by testing their baby teeth, because blood tests only reveal recent exposure;
— requiring water systems to inventory their service pipes and other infrastructure and, within 10 years, adopt a full lead service pipe replacement program.
Flint returned to Detroit’s water system in 2015, but residents still must use faucet filters or bottled water while the federal government, state and city work to make the system safe with corrosion-reducing phosphates.