LANSING – Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant resigned Tuesday in the wake of interim findings from the task force Governor Rick Snyder commissioned to investigate why Flint’s drinking water became contaminated with lead that pointed the finger squarely at the DEQ.
Snyder, who is out of state this week on vacation with his family, announced Wyant’s resignation in a prepared statement issued by his press office. The governor said Wyant offered to resign, and he “determined that it’s appropriate to accept it.”
Snyder press secretary Dave Murray, asked why Snyder made that determination, pointed to the letter with interim findings the task force sent Tuesday to Snyder.
That letter, clearly and devastatingly, blames the DEQ for Flint drinking water becoming contaminated with lead in some locations and children suffering lead poisoning.
“The task force has done an exceptional job, reviewing stacks of documents and interviewing scores of Flint, Genesee County, state and federal officials,” Snyder said in the statement. “Although the task force’s final report is not yet completed, members have made me aware of some interim findings and corrective steps that I have decided to take immediately in order to restore trust in how the state keeps its citizens safe and informed.”
Asked if Wyant offered to resign on his own or if Snyder asked for his resignation, Murray said, “Director Wyant offered his resignation.” Asked again if Snyder requested Wyant’s resignation, Murray said only, “As the governor’s statement says, Director Wyant offered his resignation.”
It is quite a change from two months ago, when in an October 19 interview with the Detroit News Editorial Board, Mr. Snyder, asked why Mr. Wyant still had a job, said Mr. Wyant had taken action on his staff, reassigning a key employee. Mr. Snyder also said the first people being addressed were those who had the knowledge and expertise on the issues.
“Dan Wyant’s done a great job in responding to all of that. So I appreciate all of Dan’s hard work,” Snyder said then.
Chris Kolb, co-chair of the task force, said he had expected Wyant’s resignation in light of the report and a recent review by Auditor General Doug Ringler.
“The timing of Director Wyant’s resignation came earlier than we thought,” Kolb said. “But I wasn’t surprised that it happened.”
He said he had expected Wyant’s resignation to come after the task force’s recommendations became public, not at the same time.
Snyder will name an interim director, though who that will be has not yet been determined. Snyder also vowed other staff changes at the DEQ to address problems the task force found.
One such change followed just hours after Wyant resigned. DEQ spokesperson Brad Wurfel also announced his resignation.
It was Wurfel’s strident defenses of the DEQ that caused the department an enormous credibility problem once it became clear that outside researchers were right and DEQ staff was wrong. In July, he dismissed to Michigan Radio the importance of a leaked U.S. Environmental Protection Agency memo raising worries about lead in the water, telling Michigan Radio, “Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax”. He called the findings of Doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Hurley Medical Center physician in Flint who discovered elevated levels of lead in children’s blood, “unfortunate.”
The physician’s findings would soon be vindicated.
Wurfel, in a statement announcing his resignation, made no mention of the Flint water crisis.
“I have been particularly satisfied with work I have done to train department staff to better communicate with the public and the press, and other departments,” he said. “I have greatly appreciated my time as communications director at the DEQ, but I am looking forward to pursuing new opportunities in the new year.”
Wyant not only was DEQ director, he also was a group executive overseeing the departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture and Rural Development. Snyder has not yet named new group executive, Murray said.
Overall, Tuesday’s developments appeared designed to begin the process of restoring trust. Snyder used that word – “trust” – in his statement, saying the actions he announced Tuesday are designed to restore a culture of openness and trust.
The phone rang busy at Wyant’s home Tuesday.
Legislators who represent Flint said Wyant’s departure hopefully will mean change.
“If these personnel moves and change in tone lead to a more aggressive response and resources to improve public health, then we are finally making progress,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said in a statement. “I still believe that legislative hearings will be required to get all the answers and help shape the necessary policy changes, and ensure this never happens again.”
Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) said Wyant’s resignation was long overdue, but good news.
“It was disappointing that the governor didn’t step up early on to demand his resignation,” he said.
Neeley said his chief concern with Wyant was how he responded after outside experts began raising concerns about Flint water. The DEQ took a defensive posture instead of taking outside studies seriously, a move that would have meant efforts to remediate the situation much sooner.
“The early denials of the DEQ show they had very little concern about the residents of Flint,” he said.
For Snyder to regain trust, Neeley said, he will have to “own this in total” and take major actions.
This story was published by Gongwer News Service. To subscribe, click on www.gongwer.com