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Wednesday, October 21, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Michigan fires head of environmental agency’s drinking water unit

Paul Egan Tribune News Service

LANSING, Mich. – The state of Michigan announced Friday it has fired the head of the Department of Environmental Quality’s drinking water unit over the lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water supply.

The state didn’t name the official, but the post was held by Liane Shekter Smith, and the Department of Technology, Management and Budget confirmed she is the fired employee.

“Putting the well-being of Michiganders first needs to be the top priority for all state employees,” Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said in a news release. “Anything less than that is unacceptable. The DEQ is working to change this culture and ensure mistakes that endanger our residents don’t occur again.”

The release said Smith was fired Friday after a disciplinary conference regarding performance. A departmental review of the actions of a second employee who was suspended last month are continuing, the release said.

On Jan. 22, Snyder announced the suspensions without pay of two Department of Environmental Quality officials, pending investigations.

Though the state didn’t name them, the Detroit Free Press identified them as Smith and Stephen Busch, the official who told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Flint was using “optimized corrosion control” on its drinking water, when in fact the Flint plant was using no corrosion control.

Smith’s firing is the first in connection with the public health catastrophe, which has already prompted the December resignations of former DEQ Director Dan Wyant and DEQ communications director Brad Wurfel.

Lead began leaching into the water after the city, while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its source of supply in April 2014 from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to water from the Flint River, treated at the Flint water treatment plant.

The state Department of Environmental Quality has acknowledged it failed to require needed corrosion-control chemicals to be added to the water, allowing lead to leach from pipes, joints and fixtures into an unknown number of Flint households. For months, the state denied reports of elevated lead levels in drinking water and the blood of Flint children, before acknowledging a problem around Oct. 1. Flint and Genesee County are now under state and federal emergency declarations.

Although the source of supply was switched back to Detroit in October, it’s not clear when the water will be safe to drink again because of damage done to the water distribution infrastructure.

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