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Former Flint mayor on water crisis: "It's frustrating to me that more has not been done"

Jan 29, 2016

Former Flint mayor Dayne Walling joined us in-studio to discuss the Flint water crisis
Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio

The Flint water crisis is complicated, and more details are being revealed nearly every day.

Dayne Walling has lived it from the beginning. Walling was the mayor of Flint from 2009 to 2015, the period of time when crucial decisions were made regarding Flint’s water supply.

Walling tells us that he and the city council had been considering signing on to the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline even before Governor Snyder put an emergency manager in place to oversee operations in Flint.

“The city had been extending their contract with the Detroit system each year. The long-term contract had run out eight or nine years ago,” he says. They explored many long-term options, including the Flint River, but that option was dismissed because it “just wasn’t feasible.”

“So it came down to a decision between signing a new contract with the Detroit water system or starting a new contract with the Karegnondi, or KWA, pipeline that would also bring lake water from Lake Huron to Flint and Genessee County," Walling says.

The two systems have some notable differences. KWA is “a more cooperative base,” with each community paying for its share of the project and eventually treating its own water for its customers, Walling explains, while the Detroit model has a “distance and elevation cost built into their system,” meaning customers further from the service center end up paying more for their water.

So, both systems would supply Flint and Genssee County with Lake Huron water, but KWA was determined to be “a few hundred million dollars cheaper,” Walling tells us.

“That was the recommendation that emergency financial manager Ed Kurtz brought to myself and city council, but we need to be clear that it was DEQ director Dan Wyant, State Treasurer Andy Dillon and Governor Snyder who made that final decision,” he says.

"I was told and our public was told time and time again that the water was meeting the standards, it was being treated like the rest of the water."

The governor’s office has released emails from 2014 and 2015 regarding the Flint water situation, but have not provided any insight into the switch from Detroit water to the KWA that happened in 2013.

“And I have a real problem with this too, because in the State of the State, the governor starts the Flint water story with March of 2013, leaves out the fact that the emergency manager was the one who brought the recommendation to myself and city council, and then has also not released his emails [for 2013],” Walling says.

“What’s happening in 2013 that we can’t know about? Why is our governor withholding his correspondence about the KWA, and is there anything in there about the Flint River? Because that is not what we were hearing locally.”

In June 2013, then-emergency manager Ed Kurtz hired an engineering company to plan the switch to the Flint River because a renewed contract with DWSD wasn’t being pursued and the KWA pipeline wouldn’t be completed for a number of years. Somehow they failed to foresee the problems the water would cause.

“This is the worst aspect of the emergency financial managers,” Walling says. “Those purchasing resolutions weren’t going before the public. They weren’t on a city council agenda for comment. I didn’t find out about it until after the fact. You have no ongoing scrutiny.”

Walling tells us emails released from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have shown that corrosion control was discussed among Flint employees and the EPA, but “the Department of Environmental Quality resisted that input.” Instead, according to Walling, the DEQ said water in Flint households must be tested, and found to contain elevated lead levels before corrosion control measures would be considered.

He reminds us that both the DEQ director and Flint’s emergency manager both report directly to the governor, “so the state’s on both sides of this.”

Even in 2014, after Flint residents started complaining about the taste and odor of the water, and after a boil order was issued to prevent the spread of E. coli, no one apparently suspected that all the problems were symptomatic of a larger issue with Flint’s water.

“That was what was missed. In my role as mayor I wasn’t getting a report from the director of Public Works. I was on the receiving end of the same public information that everyone else was getting.… I look back on that and I’m just so angry with how it was handled,” he says. “It’s humiliating. I was told and our public was told time and time again that the water was meeting the standards, it was being treated like the rest of the water.”

"It is going to take hundreds of millions of dollars to start to make this right, and that needs to be happening now, not at some distant point in the future when everyone's given up hope."

Walling tells us the experience has shaken his faith in our state government and federal regulators.

“My family and I, we were drinking the water. I wasn’t saying that as a PR line, I was telling the truth based on everything that I knew. And when it was found that children in our community were poisoned by lead, and a couple weeks later the director of the Environmental Quality Department admits that it wasn’t regulated right from the very beginning … it’s been so hard and humiliating and it’s frustrating to me that more has not been done.”

For Walling, it's an issue of broken trust, and he says that can’t be repaired without the release of the governor’s 2013 emails.

“I’m a resident, I’m a taxpayer in Flint. I’m raising my two sons there,” Walling says. “I want to know what did the governor know, what did the Department of Environmental Quality know, how did this happen?”

$28 million has been approved to help Flint get back on its feet, but that’s ultimately a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated bill. If they’re going to replace the pipes, Walling says they’re going to have to replace the whole line.

“I’m very disappointed that the governor found time to hire PR firms but hasn’t put money into replacing lead pipes,” Walling says. “It is going to take hundreds of millions of dollars to start to make this right, and that needs to be happening now, not at some distant point in the future when everyone’s given up hope.”

Dayne Walling talks more about the Flint water crisis and the community response in our interview above.