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Ex-Flint Official Relied On Experts To Solve Drinking Water Issues


Here's to Flint. Those were the words of Flint Michigan's then mayor as he raised a glass of water to toast the switch from Detroit's water supply to the Flint River. That toast has come to haunt him and other officials who joined in raising a glass, including Darnell Earley. Earley was brought in by the state to cut costs. He was the man in charge, Flint's emergency manager when the switch was made in 2014. We invited him to our studio to describe what he knew and when about a water supply that ended up poisoning people with both bacteria and lead, which can cause brain damage in children. Good morning.

DARNELL EARLEY: Good morning.

KELLY: When did you first become aware that something had gone terribly wrong?

EARLEY: Well, up until the switch, we were proceeding right along to plan. I had regular meetings with the operations staff who were in constant contact with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. There was no reason for me to expect that there was a problem. We made the switch, and then about a month or so after, there were complaints about discoloration of the water and a notification from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that the water contains certain contaminants - E. coli, some other normally found contaminants in water - but nothing about lead leaching into the water at that point.

KELLY: When those complaints started coming in in late spring, early summer of 2014, did you follow up with those people? Did you go to their homes and see what was coming out of their taps?

EARLEY: The water treatment staff did actually follow up on the complaints...

KELLY: But did you?

EARLEY: ...They visited the homes. Personally, no, I did not go, but the staff did go to those homes.

KELLY: We should mention that you have your attorney, Scott Bolden. He's here in the studio with you, and that's because of ongoing litigation. I know you need to be careful about what you say, but I want to be very precise about what the chronology was. When these complaints started coming in, you followed up, you were getting advised by scientific experts about a...

EARLEY: Absolutely.

>>KELLY ...Water quality problem. What were they telling you and were you questioning what they were telling you?

EARLEY: Well, they were telling me the distribution system is old. There are contaminants introduced into it. And the summertime - or as that time was coming - made the water a little bit more difficult to treat than the treated water that we had been getting. So all of that made sense to me as a nonwater treatment expert, but I was convinced based on those reports that the experts were in charge and were managing the problem.

KELLY: What about switching back to the original water supply, switching back to Detroit water? Did you think about that at any point in 2014?

EARLEY: When it became obvious that we had another - or not that we had another issue, but we weren't solving the issue that we had, there was really more discussion about how do we fix and manage the problem? I mean, keep in mind, we didn't have a lot of options. I mean, the Flint River was tested on a regular basis for its chemistry and its compatibility and portability as a drinking water source...

KELLY: But there's...

EARLEY: ...So this was a known commodity.

KELLY: There's testing of the water knowing something is a known commodity and, again, what you were hearing from Flint residents which is something is badly, badly wrong.

EARLEY: Which is why we were trying to figure out what was badly, badly wrong, and when we could not figure that out, I brought in another set of experts to help us figure that out.

KELLY: The decision to switch the water supply was a financial one. You have been criticized for, perhaps, prioritizing saving money over protecting the children of Flint.

EARLEY: Well, the children of Flint never became the issue under my watch. The issue under my watch was we've got some contamination hiccups, we've got some contamination problems and a system related to the things that I've just laid out here for you. What are you doing about that? Well, we're doing the boil water advisories. We're dispatching the water treatment staff. We're flushing the hydrants. We're repairing the valves to the extent that we can. The issue of the children in the lead was discovered after I was there. Now, that doesn't make it any easier. It just makes it - in my opinion - that much more urgent for us to focus on how to deal with it instead of trying to allay some kind of blame or some kind of responsibility when there are so many people involved in such a complex process. There were decisions made all along the way.

KELLY: Mr. Earley, I wonder if there's anything you want to say now to those parents in Flint and those families with children who have been affected by this problem.

EARLEY: Well, I certainly regret the outcome of the project, and my prayer is that they understand this was not done at the expense of anyone or any group of people. I mean, I - there's a day go by that I don't feel something as it relates to what the city has gone through, but that's because I've lived there. I have relatives there, you know. I've worshipped with the people in Flint. I feel a part of that community. I spent a good part of my professional career trying to make it better. And I believe we'll get past this, but we have to move forward.

KELLY: Mr. Earley, thank you.

EARLEY: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Darnell Earley. He was the emergency manager for Flint, Mich., from late 2013 to January of 2015. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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