Dayne Walling is not in an enviable position.
He was mayor of Flint, Michigan when the city switched its water source from Detroit to the Flint River, without adding corrosion controls. That decision has to lead leaching into the city’s water supply and its residents’ blood streams. But while he was the democratically elected leader, he had limited power and also claims he was given limited information about what was going on. The city of Flint was under the control of a number of state-appointed emergency managers until April of 2015 and the current mayor still doesn’t have full authority.
Even so, Walling at times became the face of a government that ignored the almost immediate complaints from residents about the water quality, telling them as late as April 2015 that the water was safe enough that he and his family was drinking it.
“It’s humiliating,” he said, recalling his encouraging words in an interview with ThinkProgress. “It’s hard to think back, knowing what I do now about lead levels rising in the water supply, and having made those those kinds of comments.”
“I could have never made those comments given what I know now,” he continued. “But I can’t forgive myself that I made them anyway.”
Walling is no longer in office, having lost to current Mayor Karen Weaver, who campaigned on the water quality issue. Weaver has called for $55 million in funding to replace the city’s pipes and will be in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to testify before Congress.
When Walling made the comments he now regrets, Veolia, a private multinational water company that had been brought in to do an independent assessment, told the city that it met state and federal water standards, although it didn’t report on lead levels.
“My understanding was that…we had a TTHM [trihalomethanes, which can cause liver and kidney damage] problem…that all the steps that everybody was saying we needed to take we were taking,” he said. “I didn’t want people to be unnecessarily afraid. And the tragedy is that everyone in this community had a real fear of lead that should have been there from the beginning.”
Walling said he began hearing complaints about the water, which residents said often smelled off, came out looking brown, and left them with rashes and other ailments, by the middle of 2014, shortly after the original switch was made. “I think the first month was relatively quiet,” he recalled. But “there started being problems right away that summer.”
Walling met with LeAnne Walters, one of the most vocal residents who brought attention to the contamination, and heard about the elevated levels of lead in her water. He was told, he says, that the problem was that her house was connected to an unusually long lead service line, which was causing the problem. “What I didn’t know was that yes, that lead line was part of the problem, but that there was an underlying issue of corrosion,” he said.
Still, he wishes now that he had listened to those complaints and done more on their behalf. “They were right,” he said. “We needed more independent expertise involved from the beginning. I wish I had reached out. It’s kind of easy to say in retrospect, once you know there’s a problem of course you would go back and prevent the problem.”
The tragedy is that everyone in this community had a real fear of lead that should have been there from the beginning
Walling became most alarmed, however, when he found out in late 2014 that the city had violated the federal limit for TTHMs in its water. In September 2014, a notice went out to residents of the excessive level. That’s when he first got the feeling that he wasn’t getting the full picture from state officials.
“The red flag started waving for me with the TTHM [advisory] and understanding that I had not been given very basic information from the tests,” he said. He went to a meeting with the Department of Environmental Quality and other officials, and realized, “I’m looking around the room and everybody, the director of public works, the emergency manager, everybody knows what’s going on but me.”
It was shortly after that realization that he decided to take action on his own. Without consulting the emergency manager, he put together a list of demands that he called his Flint Water Improvement Plan and sent them to Gov. Rick Snyder (R). In the plan, he called for more transparency around the water testing, state investment that would finance improvements to the city’s water infrastructure, and affordability relief from the sky-high bills residents were required to pay, among other things.
“It was clear to me that more had to be done, that the state had the major responsibility,” he said. “I was just furious that these quarterly tests had been done and nobody knew about them — me, the [city] council, the public.”
Snyder’s administration responded by meeting one of Walling’s requests: that the state approve the city’s application to the Distressed Cities Fund. In February 2015, Snyder traveled to Flint to unveil a $2 million grant meant to free up funds to improve Flint’s water quality. But at the time, Walling had estimated that the city needed to make $50 million worth of upgrades.
“Then that was it,” Walling said. “It was like it just disappeared… After that one response it was like the issue went away, from the state’s perspective.” Snyder’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment about what happened to the rest of Walling’s demands.
“Maybe I should have been calling for this action a year, year and a half earlier,” he added. “But I called for it when I came to understand there was a problem. Then it’s blown off.” (In emails Snyder released to the public voluntarily, members of his administration called his plan a “CYA effort due to the election” later in the year, given that Walling was trying to be reelected to his post.)
It’s still not yet clear who made the decision not to use controls to protect the city’s pipes from the corrosive water, or why a granulated activated carbon filter, which would have reduced the need to add chemicals to the water that also ate away at the pipes, wasn’t used as was recommended by Veolia. But Walling is convinced that these decisions were made not out of mere incompetence, but deliberately, with an eye to reducing costs.
“There were experts who were making these decisions, and I understand from conversations with city personnel…that carbon filters, corrosion control, all those things had been part of the discussion from the beginning,” he said. “People knew that the decision to not use the carbon filter, to not do corrosion control, would save the city money and would be manageable in the short term at some cost to the community. And that’s what was either ignored or was criminally disregarded.”
Right now there are a number of investigations, at the state and federal level, underway. “It’s only going to be through the investigations that we’ll learn whether that was done with knowledge of the consequences,” Walling said.