It’s not over, but when Governor Rick Snyder tapped Michigan Tech alumnus Keith Creagh to tackle the Flint water crisis, Creagh delivered.
There's a bear in Keith Creagh's outer office—a glossy black bear guarding a Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sign. That's not surprising, since Creagh—a 1974 Forestry alumnus—is director of the DNR.
But it's nothing compared to the bear of a situation Creagh took on when he answered Governor Rick Snyder's call to become interim director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) at the height of the Flint water crisis.
In April 2014, to save money, the city of Flint, Michigan, switched from Detroit's Lake Huron water to water from the nearby Flint River. What appeared to be a fiscally responsible decision came with two unintended consequences. The Flint River water has a lower pH—a measure of acidity or alkalinity. It was more acidic, although still within what is considered a normal or acceptable range. It also contained high concentrations of chlorides, which cause the metal pipes carrying the water to oxidize more easily.
Detroit's water was treated with polyphosphates to counteract the chlorides. Flint River water was not.
General Motors was the first to notice the difference. Automobile parts in their Flint plant were corroding at a much faster pace. GM investigated and found the cause of the corrosion: the high chloride concentration. GM wasn't looking for lead. They were looking at their iron-corrosion problem.
The company switched back to Detroit water and reported the reason to officials in Flint.
"GM's findings should have raised a red flag for city and state officials," says David Hand, chair of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Tech and a water treatment expert. "Many of the water service lines in Flint, the ones that run from the mains to commercial buildings and residences, are made of lead. And the untreated Flint River water was taking the protective scale off those pipes, leaching the lead right into the city's taps."
Residents began to complain. An angry contingent of citizens brought discolored, smelly water to city hall. Not until October 2015—nearly a year and a half after the switch to Flint River water—after pressure from the US Environmental Protection Agency and an independent study by a Virginia Tech scientist, did the county health department declare a public health emergency.
Amidst a national uproar, the director of MDEQ—the agency responsible for overseeing water safety issues—resigned.
Enter Keith Creagh.
Creagh's first call came from Dan Wyant, erstwhile director of the MDEQ. Wyant, a longtime friend and colleague, said: "I'm on my way out." Wyant said that Governor Snyder planned to ask Creagh to take charge of the MDEQ. "And I am going to ask you to do it," he added.
The next call was indeed from the Governor's office. After promising his wife, Laska, that the assignment would be temporary, Creagh accepted Snyder's appointment as interim director of the MDEQ on December 30, 2015. "At that point, I only knew what I had read about it," says Creagh. "But it was important. When you turn on the tap, you ought to be able to drink the water."
Governor Snyder knew Creagh was the right man for the job. "Keith Creagh is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about Michigan's environment," the Governor says. "The expertise and enthusiasm he brings to every task is unmatched."
"I asked Keith to step in during a very difficult time at the Department of Environmental Quality, and he did not hesitate," Snyder goes on to say. "He has worked every day to improve water quality, recommend updated, stricter standards, and change the way regulators approach their jobs so that they are responsive and open-minded to concerns."
Creagh knew he had accepted a tough assignment. "I was not naïve," he says. "I knew it would be fairly contentious."
"Fairly contentious" is an understatement typical of Creagh. "He has a different way about him. He handles stressful situations calmly," says Michelle Crook, an environmental engineer with the DNR and a 1992 Michigan Tech alumna who has worked with Creagh for years. "He wants to hear everyone's point of view. And he really listens. But he also challenges people not to accept the status quo."
Mike Irish, an associate professor of visual and performing arts at Tech who was a classmate in Creagh's 1974 Forestry class, recalls the same sort of laid-back, big-picture guy. "It was always a pleasure to be on Keith's team," says Irish. "He was real even-tempered, unflappable."
"I asked Keith to step in during a very difficult time at the Department of Environmental Quality, and he did not hesitate."
Irish recalls the time when a couple of classmates "really got into it while we were socializing after hours. Keith pulled them apart, took one aside and talked to him, then talked to the other one. He defused the whole situation."
That's a skill that would stand him in good stead in the MDEQ and Flint.
Creagh soon discovered that nearly everyone was angry. The people of Flint were angry that they felt that their water was poisoning them. MDEQ employees—who were being reamed by the press and the public—were defensive. So were city officials. And the EPA, the Governor, and the Michigan Legislature wanted answers.
They all wanted to know what had happened. They all wanted to know who was responsible.
"I went in understanding that people were angry," says Creagh. "And they had a right to be. They didn't know whom to trust. I needed to be a good listener. I needed to help them construct a community-based solution."
The first thing he did was establish an MDEQ emergency operations center to oversee testing programs and analyze the water treatment and delivery system in Flint, to determine actual conditions at that moment and what needed to be done going forward.
MDEQ started a sentinel program to monitor the water quality and lead levels in hundreds of homes throughout Flint. Another residential program collected 23,000 water samples from Flint residents and tested them all. Processes were examined at the water treatment plant, and initial conditions in the city's pipes were analyzed.
Creagh found many factors that played into the crisis. In addition to the lack of corrosion control, Flint's water system was overbuilt for its current population and manufacturing base. That meant less water was flowing through the pipes than they were intended to handle.
"All water is corrosive, but if it's flowing, it's less corrosive," Creagh explains. In Flint, water was being underutilized; it wasn't flowing through the pipes. "One of the critical lessons learned was, how do you appropriately size infrastructure for a city with a declining population and loss of manufacturing," he says.
He also found what he calls "analysis paralysis." No one wanted to make a decision, because everyone was afraid they might be prosecuted or lose their job.
"I was a little surprised at how long it took to put the necessary programs in place," Creagh admits. "The difficulty in getting a consistent answer wasn't something I anticipated. The capacity just wasn't there. The new mayor was working to build an administrative structure to put programs in place to solve the community's problems."
Meanwhile, things were no better back at the MDEQ, where Creagh faced an atmosphere charged with grief and fear. At his first meeting with the staff, he says, "there was more than a little tension in the room. It was really intense, but not unexpected, despite the fact that MDEQ staff consists of highly trained professionals."
Creagh credits his Michigan Tech education with teaching him "to look at the data."
"In the MDEQ, in Flint, in Washington, and in Lansing, we had a lot of voices hollering, but never together," Creagh recalls. "They weren't listening to each other or paying attention to the actual data."
Creagh credits his Michigan Tech education with teaching him "to look at the data." He says he also learned at Tech to ask the bigger, deeper questions and to value a diversity of expertise, because a multidisciplinary approach is the best way to solve complex problems.
Everyone began investigating the Flint water situation. The EPA convened a data summit, a consortium of experts that included the Wayne State University and Virginia Tech scientists who had first reported the problem. The Governor brought in all the stakeholders—health specialists, educators, water quality experts, nutritionists—to form the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee.
Creagh spent four wrenching hours before a congressional oversight committee. "It was not a conversation; it was not civil," he recalls. He also testified before the Michigan House and Senate Oversight Committees. There, he says, he found "civility and thoughtful questions. They wanted to know what we can do to improve the system."
And Creagh, true to form, participated in an effort to reach out to community leaders and ministers.
"We were guests in their community," he says. "We had to be respectful, and we had to bring people together. The expertise is all here. The question is how you build integrity and trust and make sure that everyone gets heard."
Before he took the interim director job, Creagh promised his wife it would only be for three months. Three became six, and six became seven, while Creagh's biggest problem was something that people call "work-life balance." Essentially, he was working 24/7, taking his first briefing at 6:45 in the morning and his last conference call at 8 at night. "And then I could start my regular DEQ work," he quips.
Creagh started as interim director of MDEQ on January 4. His first half-day off was Valentine's Day, February 14, when he watched the Michigan State-Indiana University afternoon basketball game, then took his wife out to dinner. "You can do that for a sprint, but not for the long haul," he remarks.
Laska Creagh agrees. "We were supposed to go to Florida for a vacation," she says. "We couldn't go." But Creagh explains:
"I couldn't take the family to Florida while the people in Flint don't have safe water to drink."
Laska understood about the vacation. "My concern," she says, "was, how much stress can he really take?"
Keith Creagh developed some good stress-busters. "You go home and jog or play old-guy soccer," he says. "You go hunting or fishing. You try to find some solitude, some place where the cell phone won't ring."
But when the time came for Governor Snyder to appoint a permanent MDEQ director, Creagh stood firm. Flint's water, once again coming from Detroit, had improved in quality. The MDEQ and the Flint water system were in the process of being restructured, with processes put in place to prevent similar problems. So when Snyder asked Creagh about staying in the job, his answer was simple.
"I made my wife a promise. And no offense, Governor, but I sleep with her."
Laska is relieved that he kept that promise, although "he brought Flint back with him," she says.
That's true, Creagh agrees. "I'll still be in Flint," he says. "I appreciate the opportunity to stay involved, to take it from a crisis to an ownership of responsibility, where everyone realizes that you can't take care of the environment without considering public health, that it's all about exposures, risks, and quality of life."
And besides, as Creagh is the first to admit, he doesn't like to leave anything unfinished.
What Really Happened to Flint's Water
David Hand was on Togwotee Pass, Wyoming, when he got the call from Keith Creagh. It was 20 degrees that day in February, and Togwotee Pass is 10,000 feet up in the Wyoming mountains, above Jackson Hole. Shivering as he stood outside, the only place he could get cell phone reception, Hand—chair of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Tech and a water treatment expert—shared names of some of the world's top water treatment specialists with Creagh, who was trying to get a handle on the Flint water crisis.
Hand's own expertise is in treatment of organic compounds in water, and Flint's problem involved lead—an inorganic contaminant—so Hand sent him to several colleagues. Among them was R. Rhodes Trussell, whom Hand calls the world's expert on corrosion. Hand co-authored a book on water treatment with Trussell.
Then Hand, Professor Marty Auer, and Assistant Professor Daisuke Minakata, all in Tech's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, were asked by 1991 alumnus Steven Tomaszewski, director of operations for North America at General Motors, to do a historical assessment of GM's actions in relation to Flint's water. GM, which had switched its water service back to Detroit in late 2014, had been accused of prior knowledge of Flint's water problems.
The team found that GM had switched water because the chloride concentration in Flint River water was too high, causing corrosion of metals in automobile parts. "GM didn't know anything about lead; they weren't looking for lead. They were looking for the reason metal parts were corroding," Hand explains.
Even so, GM notified the Flint Water Authority of their findings, Hand says, but it wasn't until a year later that anyone identified the reason lead levels in Flint's water were rising.
What had happened, Hand says, is that when Flint switched from Detroit water, which is treated with polyphosphates to keep scale on the pipes and prevent lead from leaching into the drinking water, their new Flint River water was not treated with phosphates.
As a result, the high-chloride content of the water removed scale from the pipes. Scale sounds like a bad thing, but it is actually protective of the metal pipes. The scale itself contains some lead, which doesn't get into the water as long as the scale is firmly attached to the pipes. And when the scale is gone, the chloride-rich water can leach lead from the pipes into the water.
The pH of the water—a measure of acidity or alkalinity—was actually within the normal range for drinking water, but with no corrosion protection, there was nothing to hold the scale in place on the pipes, giving the chloride levels an ideal environment to do their dirty work.
"Even at normal pH, you're going to see more lead when chlorides are high," says Hand. Flint water is coming from Detroit again, so the corrosion-inhibiting polyphosphate is being added now. But another problem interfered with the corrective action.
"People got scared and turned their water off," says Hand. "I don't blame them. I would have, too."
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.