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Flint — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has sided with the state in a battle over whether the city of Flint should be forced to sign a consent order requiring fixes to the city’s water system.

In June, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said the state could not force her to sign the order outlining a corrective plan for problems identified in an August 2017 sanitary survey.

At the time, Weaver said the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was making “false accusations or lies” about the city's compliance with state and federal drinking water laws. She added that a consent order would be a “deliberate and willful misuse of the DEQ’s authority for political purposes.”

The EPA disagreed in an Wednesday letter to the city, noting that the state has “primacy agency authority” to issue a consent order and that Flint missed the deadline to address its infrastructure problems and avoid such an order.

Since Weaver’s refusal to sign the agreement in June, the city has been negotiating with the state over the terms of the consent agreement and provided a response to the state’s proposed consent order June 27, said Candice Mushatt, a Flint spokeswoman.

On June 28, Mushatt said, the state responded that it would review the city’s letter, which asked to remove some items from the order that the city had already complied with.

“We are still waiting to hear from the MDEQ regarding removals,” she said.

The EPA noted Flint's softening on the issue and commended the city for its efforts at civility. 

“I appreciate the efforts that both sides have put into resolving the deficiencies identified in the sanitary survey,” wrote Linda Holst, acting director for the EPA’s water division. “The city has made and continues to make good faith efforts to resolve the identified issues.”

The subtly snarky letters and statements between Flint and the state have been a consistent reminder of the tension that still exists four years after the city’s water supply was contaminated with lead while under a state-appointed emergency manager.

The contamination stemmed from an April 2014 decision to stop using pretreated water from the Detroit area system and instead use Flint River water while a regional water authority finished building a pipeline from Lake Huron to Genesee County. 

The city, following advice from state water regulators, failed to treat the river water with corrosion-control chemicals, resulting in the lead contamination first identified in August and September 2015.

In August 2017, the state conducted a sanitary survey that found the city’s water system has “significant deficiencies,” including ones related to water distribution, security, finances, and operations and management.

When the city failed to fix the problems within 120 days, the state sent notice to the city that it would be required to sign an Administrative Consent Order prepared by the state that outlined a corrective action plan for the water system deficiencies.

The order would include having a "permanent or contractual" manager to oversee control program activities. Assistant Attorney General Richard Kuhl threatened federal legal action against Flint if the city didn’t enter into and comply with the order.

Weaver told The Detroit News in June that the state could “bring it on” and said she would refuse to sign the order. She claimed the requirement was nothing more than retaliation for her protests when Gov. Rick Snyder ordered the end of the state’s free bottled water deliveries to the city.

In the aftermath of the water crisis, the state agreed in a settlement to pay up to $97 million to replace the estimated 18,000 lead or galvanized steel service lines in Flint by 2020.

A total of $167 million in state and federal funds is available to Flint for the city’s overall water infrastructure. In recent letters, however, the state said Flint is failing to ask for reimbursement from the fund for improvements made so far and the city is using an excavation system that is costly and inefficient

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

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