A Flint official said on March 29 that he wanted to treat water to avoid lead contamination, but was overruled by the state.
Before the city began drawing its drinking water from the Flint River in 2014 in an effort to cut costs, officials first held a meeting going through a checklist of final developments.
During that time, the supervisor for the plant’s laboratory, Mike Glasgow, said he asked the district engineer, Mike Prysby of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, how often employees needed to check the water for proper levels of phosphate, a chemical they intended to add to avoid lead corrosion from the pipes.
According to Glasgow, Prysby’s response was, “You don’t need to monitor phosphate because you’re not required to add it.”
Glasgow said he and a consulting firm engineer were surprised at Prysby’s response, since treating drinking water is a regular procedure.
“Then,” Glasgow said, “we went on to the next question.”
For almost 18 months after that decisive meeting took place, Flint residents were exposed to contaminated water until Gov. Rick Snyder announced in October 2015 that the city would return to the Detroit system.
A team appointed by Snyder to investigate the water described the state as “fundamentally accountable,” partly because of the DEQ’s instruction to omit corrosion controls.
In a report last week, the task force also placed partial blame to the state Department of Health and Human Services, local and federal agencies, and emergency managers Snyder had designated to overlook city operations. The report did not fault Prysby alone among DEQ officials.
In a hearing investigating the crisis, Glasgow said it was Prysby who told him that federal regulations on lead and copper pollution required testing the water for two consecutive six-month periods before deciding whether to apply corrosion controls.
The DEQ later would admit that was a misreading of the rules, which instead require systems serving more than 50,000 people to install and maintain corrosion control treatment.
“I did have some concerns and misgivings at first,” Glasgow told the committee.
“But unfortunately, now that I look back, I relied on engineers and the state regulators to kind of direct the decision. I looked at them as having more knowledge than myself.”
At the hearing Sen. Joe Hune (R-Mich.) asked Glasgow why he didn’t ignore Prysby’s instructions and add the phosphate.
Glasgow responded that he had always respected the DEQ’s judgment and added that it would have taken up to six months to acquire and install equipment for the treatments. He said pressure from superiors to move faster also influenced him.
Glasgow added that a couple of weeks before making the switch to the Flint River he had complained to a DEQ official that he needed more time to train staff and other preparations.
“I will reiterate this to management above me, but they seem to have their own agenda,” he wrote in an email.
In an interview after the hearing Glasgow faulted himself.
“I kick myself every day,” Glasgow said.
“To know that if I could have screamed a little louder or questioned something a bit further, I could have maybe avoided all this, it’s something I’ll keep on my shoulders for the rest of my life,” he added.
Lee-Anne Walters, who says her children have been sickened by the contaminated water, said that hearing about Prysby’s refusal of water treatments made her “nauseous.”
“That one meeting was the difference between this city being poisoned and not being poisoned,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.