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Andrea Newell headshot

What Happened to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality?

By Andrea Newell

TriplePundit is tracking the ongoing drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Follow our coverage here

Many have wondered how the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality could fail Flint citizens so utterly and completely, and not only that, act annoyed and dismissive in the face of their concerns and the muddy-colored tap water that backed them up.

Some, like Rhonda Anderson, community organizer of Sierra Club Detroit, have blamed institutional racism, along with an utter disregard for lower-income Michigan residents, especially those who live in Detroit (and by extension, Flint).

Anderson says that Gov. Rick Snyder's attitude toward Flint is no better than many who victim-blamed the residents for GM's exit and the resulting economic collapse of those towns. (In many comment sections of articles about this issue, many people voice the same opinion.)

It's not the first time the MDEQ and the EPA have failed Michigan residents. Zip code 48217 in Detroit is one of the most polluted in the nation, as air pollution rains down on the neighborhood from surrounding big businesses like Marathon Oil and Severstal Steel, among others.

In that instance, Anderson called on the EPA and MDEQ to take action and they failed to do so.

Subsequently, air-quality tests forced Marathon to buy nearly 500 homes that were unlivable due to hazardous levels of toxic fumes. But nothing has changed. Because officials rely on the fact that no one cares about Detroit (or Flint), and no one will listen to complaints from those residents.

In a conversation with 3p, Anderson showed no surprise about Snyder's dismissiveness or that the EPA and MDEQ refused to listen or take action for Flint.

"[Snyder's attitude] was that it was permissible. Allowable. He felt that total lack of regard for residents. It didn't even cross his mind to even consider them when all of this stuff was playing out. And what has resulted is simply that he got caught red-handed."

She said of the MDEQ: "This is just how they work - about fudging stuff, about changing the data. Especially when it comes to African-American communities, because they can get away with it."

Clearly Michigan government's culture of self-absorption and lack of accountability, fed from the top level of government, has trickled down to other departments. Many say that the culture of an organization comes from the top. If top state legislators aren't concerned, and are actively ignoring the situation, covering up results and disparaging residents, other agencies take their cue from that.

Michigan's top state officials certainly acted like there was no accountability or consequences -- that nothing would happen if they simply ignored the problem. How else could an administration and state agencies expect to get away with this level of disdain for their citizens?

Only when the state couldn't keep the genie in the bottled water any longer in the face of irrefutable evidence did Snyder admit there was a problem and reluctantly take some action. Unfortunately, it wasn't until October 2015 -- a year and a half after the switch and after months of continuous complaints. It was too late and the damage to the people and the infrastructure was irreversible.

Is the tide turning?

Ongoing pressure in the wake of the Flint water crisis has caused Snyder to end almost all Emergency Manager rules in an attempt to avoid scrutiny. And now legislators' actions and all of these deceptive loopholes in Michigan law are coming under the microscope as well.

Given how Snyder stacked his administration with cronies, passed laws to make it more difficult to recall him, and initially dodged testifying in front of Congress (they didn't ask and he didn't offer), many people believe there will be no consequences for him or anyone else involved with this catastrophe, other than the resignations of some state employees.

However, blame and calls for justice have not died down. And Todd Flood, head of the Michigan Attorney General's investigation in Flint, has announced that he may seek manslaughter charges against Snyder if he turns up wrongdoing. At least nine people have died of Legionnaire's Disease since Flint switched water sources.

After criticism that the Congressional committee allowed Snyder and Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley to refuse to testify, Congress is holding another hearing and public pressure is compelling Snyder to appear (he says he offered). There have also been repeated demands for every bit of his correspondence (which has recently resulted in those 2014 emails becoming public).

Snyder is set to testify on March 17, along with the head of the EPA Gina McCarthy. Also testifying are EPA regional manager Susan Hedman (who also downplayed the Flint situation and later resigned), former Flint Mayor Dwayne Walling (who steadfastly maintained the water was safe), Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards (whose data helped force the state to finally act), and Darnell Earley (the Flint EM who refused to testify at an earlier Congressional hearing and has resigned from his post as Detroit Public Schools EM, effective this week). Perhaps there will finally be some answers to how this happened.

Calls for Snyder's resignation have also continued to grow, with a petition that has amassed nearly a million signatures to date.

Will there be justice?

The state investigation could take months or years, and ultimately return no charges at all after the furor has died down (which it never should).

But maybe, just maybe, with all eyes on Michigan, Flint residents might actually see some justice (even if it is only in the form of a civil settlement, and not Snyder's resignation or prosecution). And with new scrutiny of the workings of the Michigan government, things could change and get better in the future for the rest of the residents here.

Image credit: Flickr/Joe Brusky

Andrea Newell headshot

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

Read more stories by Andrea Newell