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Lax Oversight, Manipulated Data Led To Flint Water Crisis, Researcher Says

FLINT (CBS Detroit/AP) The public health emergency brought on by Flint's lead-tainted water supply happened because of lax state oversight, lack of follow up, and outright manipulated data, according to Mark Edwards.

Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who oversaw research on the lead in Flint's drinking water, told Zahra Huber at WWJ 950 the dangerous water situation has been going on ever since the city made the switch from Detroit's water supply to Flint River water in April 2014. It was a cost-cutting measure.

And it backfired.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday called for Flint to switch back to Detroit's water system to address a public health emergency and grapple with broader concerns about the effects of the aging pipes distributing the city's water supply.

"There's a long, long chain of errors here starting with the idea that they could put this water into this old system of lead pipes without corrosion control," Edwards said.

He added the Michigan Department of Environment Quality has been running a very lax lead testing program, especially in Flint.

"I've been reviewing the records and they've not been following the federal requirements," Edwards said.

When tests showed elevated lead levels in residents' blood samples, the tested individuals weren't notified, he said.

In addition, homes that tested with low levels of lead were kept in the pool that was reported for oversight and homes that tested high were removed, he said.

"All of this allowed them to claim the water was meeting federal standards when it had dangerously high levels of lead," he said.

The problem originated when officials decided to use water from the Flint River, but neglected to add a corrosion inhibitor to the system. At the time, officials estimated the cost of buying water from Detroit this year at $16 million, and the overall annual cost of switching to the new Karegnondi Water Authority would be $12.5 million.

"Over all of this time, Flint residents have been exposed to this hazard without the protection of what's supposed to be in federal law, which is a corrosion control program to keep lead low in the water supply. So, the lead problem's been going on ever since the switch," Edwards said.

Since the swap, residents have complained of the water's funky smell, taste and appearance, as well as adverse health reactions, and doctors discovered that the corrosive river water was drawing lead from aging pipes in some homes.

The governor announced Thursday he would ask state lawmakers for $6 million, half of the $12 million need to reconnect Flint to Detroit's system through next summer. Then the city would transition to a new regional water authority drawing water from Lake Huron.

It is the "fastest way to protect public health and stabilize Flint's water system," Flint Mayor Dayne Walling said, adding that the city should be reconnected to Detroit's system within about two weeks.

Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive at the Department of Health and Human Services, told WWJ 950 every child who tested with an elevated level of lead in their blood will be checked by public health staff. "They go into the home, they check to see these potential sources, including water," she said.

The Snyder administration released results from a lead-screening program in schools and homes. Of 37 samples at 13 buildings, four samples spread over three buildings exceeded the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. Flint is under a public health emergency due to lead in the water supply.

Snyder said switching back to Detroit is the best short-term solution, but the "long-term, real question is about lead pipes and lead service lines." He said the state is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on how to improve and expand its lead and copper testing in school water supplies — something not currently required by the federal government.

State government and nonprofit groups have been distributing filters and bottled water to Flint homes and schools.

Snyder on Thursday also committed $3.5 million for filters, free lead testing and hiring staff to conduct health exposure monitoring for lead in drinking water.

Flint Councilman Eric Mays, who has been a vocal critic of decisions related to the water system, welcomed the developments but questioned how long it took and how much more money would be needed. He credited local activists, some of whom have been raising concerns about lead for months.

"I thank a lot of people for coming out — a little late — but it's better late than never," he said.

Flint resident A.C. Dumas said he's upset with how things have been handled.

"I feel betrayed," he said. "I feel that the elderly and the children, all of us feel betrayed."

For his part, Edwards said, "You can't undo the damage that's been done to the people or to the pipes, but this is a start."

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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