VNA had no role in causing, prolonging, or worsening the Flint water crisis
From May 27, 2022 – July 13, 2022, Veolia North America (VNA) presented their case in the Flint Water Crisis bellwether trial.
As the evidence in trial has shown, VNA had no role in causing, prolonging, or worsening the crisis. VNA was hired by the City of Flint in February 2015 – nearly a year into the crisis – to conduct a two-week analysis of operations at the Flint Water Treatment Plant (FWTP) and to develop a report on their findings and recommendations. Tragically for the people of Flint, VNA’s recommendations were ignored by the politicians and bureaucrats in charge, who prioritized saving money over the health and well-being of Flint residents.
Worse still, Flint officials withheld critical information about exceptionally high levels of lead in the water of Flint residents while VNA was at the FWTP doing their analysis of plant operations. Withholding such vital information and ignoring VNA’s recommendations was part of a long pattern of neglect by the people in charge of ensuring the safety of Flint’s water.
Responsibility for the Flint Water Crisis rests squarely on the shoulders of these government officials – including Governor Snyder – who have gone to great lengths to avoid testifying in court and telling the truth to the people of Flint.
Here is what we learned over the last several weeks.
VNA did not cause any injury to the four plaintiffs, nor is there evidence these children sustained cognitive or behavioral impairments from lead exposure.
Dr. John Gaitanis, Chief of Pediatric Neurology at Tuft’s Children’s Hospital and a renowned expert on treating brain injuries in children, concluded that there is no evidence the plaintiffs experienced any medically significant lead exposure, nor do they have any brain injuries. All four children have healthy brains and can be expected to meet their full potential in life. Dr. Gaitanis also stated that the pXRF bone scan device developed and used by Aaron Specht to measure lead levels in children is not reliable in a clinical setting and no better than a coin toss.
Dr. David Thompson, a board-certified forensic psychologist with extensive experience evaluating and treating children, found that all four plaintiffs have age-appropriate IQ and standardized test scores, that their behaviors align with children of their ages and there is no evidence of neurocognitive or behavioral impairments. Dr. Thompson testified that all children are doing well in school and are likely to live full and successful lives.
Government officials sparked the crisis when they decided to switch Flint’s Water source to save money without appropriate treatment.
Rick Snyder, Former Governor of Michigan, pleaded the Fifth to avoid testifying in court. In his deposition video, Snyder admitted that the Flint Water Crisis was a failure at all levels of government, including his own administration. Snyder appointed four Emergency Managers in Flint between 2011-2015, who made reckless decisions that helped bring on the crisis and make it worse. Governor Snyder had complete power and authority to direct these Emergency Managers to undertake actions that were necessary and proper to protect the health and safety of Flint residents and the authority to remove them from their position at any time – but failed to do either. Despite all the warnings he received and concerns from Flint residents, Governor Snyder waited until October 2015, a full year after his staff made the recommendation to return to Detroit Water, to order the return to Lake Huron for drinking water.
Darnell Earley, Emergency Manager for Flint from 2013 – 2015, admitted he knew the FWTP was not prepared to distribute safe drinking water, but still chose to move forward with the switch. Later, Mr. Early ignored evidence that the water was causing serious health problems in the City and went to great lengths to mislead the public into believing the water was safe while resisting calls to return to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).
Robert Bincsik, Flint’s Water Distribution and Sewer Maintenance Supervisor during the crisis, testified that the FWTP was in a state of disrepair at the time of the switch to the Flint River. Both Bincsik and his counterpart at the Plant, Mike Glasgow, vehemently opposed the City’s decision to switch water sources and raised concerns about its ability to produce and distribute safe drinking water – concerns government officials repeatedly ignored. Mr. Bincsik said there was an overarching objective to keep the Plant running because it would save the City considerable money.
Stephen Busch, Water Supervisor for District 8 (Lansing) at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) from 2012 – 2016, approved moving forward with the water switch without implementing corrosion control treatment, despite knowing the Flint River was highly corrosive. Neither the City, nor the MDEQ, ever studied the impact of the change in water chemistry on the distribution system prior to the switch or warned Flint residents of the risk of the switch in water sources. Even after learning of a pervasive lead problem in Flint’s water and receiving hundreds of citizen complaints, Mr. Busch still did not mandate corrosion control treatment and even advised against VNA’s recommendation to do so since the Flint River was a temporary solution.
Adam Rosenthal, an environmental water quality analyst at the MDEQ, knew that the FWTP was not ready to treat the Flint River water, yet did nothing to prevent the City from moving forward. The MDEQ fast-tracked Flint’s plants to withdraw water from the Flint River and did not mandate the addition of corrosion control to Flint’s water treatment processes. The MDEQ failed to adequately supervise the City’s lead and copper testing program and Rosenthal even manipulated lead testing results and forwarded an altered report to the EPA that excluded certain tests showing a high level of lead in Flint’s water.
Government officials were aware of the lead crisis in Flint but failed to share this information with VNA and took no action to address it.
Dennis Muchmore, Chief of Staff to Governor Snyder during the crisis, described an office besieged by complaints from Flint citizens, public health officials and activists within months following the switch in water sources. Yet despite all public furor, Governor Snyder refused to direct the Flint’s Emergency Managers to take action or demand a return to Detroit Water because it was cost prohibitive. The MDEQ meanwhile, continued to insist the water was safe and that corrosion control was not necessary, despite growing evidence that the water was corrosive and lead was becoming a problem.
Howard Croft, Director of the Flint Department of Public Works from 2011-2015, ignored important warning signs showing the water was corrosive following the switch from Detroit Water. Mr. Croft continued to assure the public that the Flint River water was high quality and complied with all State and Federal requirements even after he was presented with a piece of lead service line pipe that had corroded due to the absence of phosphates in the water. When informed of the high lead levels in Flint’s distribution system and the potential for widespread lead issues, he failed to investigate further and informed his staff to quickly isolate the issue to a single home if possible.
Jennifer Crooks, Program Manager for Michigan’s Drinking Water Program at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the crisis, stated that the EPA was aware of a serious lead problem unfolding in Flint by February 2015 and failed to take necessary measures to prevent the crisis from worsening. Her deposition confirmed that the MDEQ repeatedly assured the EPA that Flint was implementing corrosion control treatment, even though the MDEQ knew this was not true.
Miguel Del Toral, a regional groundwater regulations manager for the EPA and author of a whistleblower report that exposed the Flint Water crisis, expressed concerns about the lack of corrosion control treatment in Flint given the high number of lead service lines in the City. Mr. Del Toral told MDEQ officials that the City might have much higher lead levels that their compliance reports indicated due to problems with Flint’s sampling methods, including pre-flushing before collecting samples in homes. Yet officials failed to change their methods and ignored his warnings for months.
Nancy Peeler, Director of the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during the crisis, failed to identify and report a significant jump in blood lead levels in Flint children, claiming that any chance was attributed to normal, seasonal variation.
Marvin Gnagy, lead engineer for VNA on the Flint project, was never informed of the high lead level test results from Flint resident LeeAnne Walter’s home, despite requesting all available lead and copper testing from the City and being on-site at the FWTP. Gnagy and VNA had no way to know that Flint officials had withheld this critical information, which would have significantly impacted their recommendations to the City. All the results VNA received showed the water to be in compliance with State and Federal standards.
Government officials further prolonged the crisis by refusing to even consider returning Flint to DWSD or implementing VNA’s recommendations.
Susan McCormick, the former Director of DWSD during the crisis, testified that City and State officials rejected a return to Detroit Water even after the water quality issues were known in Flint. The City’s Emergency Manager Gerald Ambrose even sought to block Ms. McCormick from discussing the offer at a Flint City Council Meeting, further delaying the return to Detroit Water.
Wayne Workman, who oversaw the State of Michigan’s Emergency Manager program during the crisis, spoke of government officials’ reluctance to return to Detroit Water even as evidence of lead in Flint’s water continued to mount. He testified that even if VNA had formally recommended returning to DWSD, it would not have made any difference in the Treasury’s position.
William Fahey, the Head of the Technical Group for VNA, said VNA engineers determined the Plant was capable of treating the Flint River water if the City implemented their recommendations. In their final report to the City, VNA made a series of important recommendations to treat the river water, which included working with the City’s engineer and the MDEQ to evaluate the need for corrosion control treatment and the use of phosphate for that purpose. Instead, their recommendations were ignored, disregarded and dismissed.
VNA fulfilled its professional duties and made appropriate recommendations to the City of Flint – recommendations that were completely disregarded by those in charge.
Dr. William Bellamy, a water treatment engineer and expert in engineering ethics, conducted a thorough review of every aspect of VNA’s work in Flint and concluded that their recommendations were appropriate based on the information they had at the time. VNA had no choice but to rely on the City to provide all relevant compliance monitoring samples, which is standard practice for the type of assessment VNA was asked to conduct. Dr. Bellamy also stated that the implementation of VNA’s recommendations was out of their control, including the recommendation to use corrosion control to treat the River water.
Dr. Graham Gagnon, a civil engineering professor at Dalhousie University and an expert on drinking water quality and treatment, concluded that VNA’s recommendations to the City, including treatment practices for removal of organic matter and corrosion control, were consistent with scientific knowledge and would have addressed Flint’s lead issues had they been implemented. He asserted that Flint’s lead issue was primarily in the distribution system, not the Flint Water Treatment Plant (FWTP) where VNA’s work occurred.