Emails show officials sniping amid 2nd Michigan lead crisis

LANSING, Michigan (AP) – After a Michigan official emailed Benton Harbor’s drinking water system manager in June 2019 that the impoverished city had failed to meet targets for the treatment of corroded lead pipes, he snapped local leaders back: “I don’t have time for this.”

City Superintendent Mike O’Malley’s email response was aimed at filing complaints about government claims against his office since the discovery of elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor water months ago. The petulant exchanges were one of many between the water chief and state regulators attempting to contain Michigan’s second high-profile lead contamination crisis in less than a decade.

The strained relationships were evident in emails released last week from the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. They were among an 11,000-page pool of notices and documents requested by lawmakers investigating the state’s handling of the predicament in Benton Harbor, a black-majority town of approximately 9,100 people in far southwest Michigan.

Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer also ordered measures to improve water quality across the country last week, including stepping up efforts to reduce lead levels and remove utilities containing the toxic metal that can damage children’s brains and nervous systems.

But her administration faces complaints of insufficient responses from Republican enemies and even some allies, including black activists and environmental groups, as it prepares for re-election next year. In the 2018 election campaign, Whitmer criticized GOP predecessor Rick Snyder’s performance in the Flint leadership emergency.

City and state officials “have failed to address this public health crisis with the necessary urgency,” said progressive groups in a September 9 petition to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Last week, the EPA directed Benton Harbor to improve its corrosion protection, repair filters in its sewage treatment plant and better notify residents.

Liesl Clark, director of the state environmental protection agency, described the situation in Benton Harbor as “unique and particularly urgent” in a letter to Republican Senate Chairman Ed McBroom, the Republican chairman of the Senate oversight committee investigating the state’s response. But lead-contaminated water is a nationwide problem, added Clark.

Clark admitted that her department in Benton Harbor could do better, but said the thousands of newly published documents showed that she “went beyond legal requirements.”

“It’s frustrating to hear this mantra that the state has done nothing there for three years,” said Eric Oswald, director of the ministry’s drinking water and environmental health department, in an interview on Monday. “We had a pretty big response effort.”

The documents and emails provide a behind-the-scenes look at conversations between state and Benton Harbor officials after samples showed high levels of lead three years ago.

On January 14, 2019, shortly after the Whitmer Look office, a memo from an Oswald consultant stated that the city did not provide any promised bottled or filtered water to residents with high levels of lead. Local officials sent mixed messages about the situation and declined offers of assistance with additional samples, the memo says.

The next month, the state gave the city permission to pump orthophosphate and polyphosphate into the water to coat the pipes and prevent erosion. Then came an approval order asking the city to fix problems with the water system and increase rates to fund upgrades.

Further emails and letters indicated that state officials urged O’Malley to increase the number of water sampling sites while arguing that fewer should be allowed as the city’s population fell below 10,000.

“I postponed the lead sampling requirements until recently, now I have to go full throttle looking for 60 houses. I just have 4, “wrote O’Malley in June 2019.” 100 letter 4 answers. We’ll go door to door next and hope for the best! ”

When state water treatment specialist Ernie Sarkipato offered to help, O’Malley replied, “I’ve already asked for your help and it’s turned down.”

The state engineer Michael Bolf wrote to Oswald in December 2019 about Benton Harbor, who repeatedly missed deadlines for approval requests.

“We feel trapped between a rock in a hard place,” wrote Bolf. A fine for the stricken city could worsen relationships and make little difference, but with indulgence, “the water system remains fragile and we may be guilty if a problem arises.”

The state agency notified Benton Harbor in February 2020 that their anti-corrosion treatments were unsuccessful and ordered adjustments. O’Malley replied that the conclusion was premature.

“For Benton Harbor, your order made us pretty anxious about what was required and it felt like you wanted us to be scared,” he said.

Oswald said on Monday that he was “cautiously optimistic” that the corrosion protection system would achieve better results and was awaiting the results of the latest tests.

The state revoked O’Malley’s certification to operate the city’s water system in November 2020 for a variety of reasons, including a refusal to disclose the location of the sample collection, said Environment Department spokesman Hugh McDiarmid Jr. Benton Harbor suspended him and later fired him, McDiarmid said.

The Associated Press could not reach O’Malley for comment. Messages were left on Monday with Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad and City Manager Ellis Mitchell.

Mohammed told a legislative committee in October that the city’s water problems would be a long time coming. Benton Harbor was under state emergency management from 2010 to 2014.

A manager laid off half of the waterworks staff and the plant’s director, but in 2018 the state environmental agency told him that more water workers were needed, he said.

“I was cross-eyed because on the one hand you had a civil servant to decrease the water labor and then another official came back and said you had to increase it,” said Mohammed.


Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan.

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