US Arbitrator Awards $192K to Official Fired in Flint Water Disaster, Calls Her a Scapegoat
Seven Years After Flint Water Crisis, Another Michigan Community Faces Water Issues
"We have 'sacrifice zones' across our country, where people have made decisions to disinvest in certain areas," said a National Wildlife Federation official.In September, an environmental agency group filed a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency to allow clean drinking water to be administered into Benton Harbor, Michigan after it was discovered that there have been high lead levels in the water supply since 2018.
An arbitrator ordered that the only Michigan official fired in the Flint water catastrophe be given $191,880 in back pay and other compensation, calling her a "public scapegoat" who lost her position as a result of politics, the Associated Press reported.
Liane Shekter Smith was the head of the state's drinking water office when Flint's water system was contaminated with lead. She was removed from her position and later fired in 2016 for what has been called one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. She also faced criminal charges.
Arbitrator: Official wrongly fired in Flint water scandal
DETROIT (AP) — The only Michigan official fired in the Flint water disaster likely was a “public scapegoat” who lost her job because of politics, an arbitrator said in ordering $191,880 in back pay and other compensation. It's a victory for Liane Shekter Smith, who served as head of the state's drinking water office when Flint's water system was contaminated with lead. She was demoted and then fired in 2016. Shekter Smith was dismissed while engineers in her department — the “boots on the ground” in Flint — were suspended with pay before ultimately returning to work, the arbitrator said in a 22-page report obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.
AP reviewed a 22-page report from the arbitrator. In it, Shekter Smith is described as having been terminated while engineers in her department were only suspended without pay and eventually permitted to return to work.
The arbitrator, Sheldon Stark, said the state didn't prove there was "just cause" in firing Shekter Smith. He also said she had an "exemplary" record in government.
"No one ever asked [Shekter Smith] for her story," Stark said.
He noted that that Department of Environmental Quality Director Keith Creagh fired Shekter Smith without ever speaking to her about Flint or waiting for a state police investigation.
For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.
"Politics and the need for a public scapegoat helps explain why Shekter Smith might have been terminated when so many others who were directly involved and actually did make" decisions in Flint were not fired, Stark said in his September report.
Michigan Community Becomes Second City In October To Report Dangerous Lead Levels In Water
The news of Hamtramck's water supply being tainted by elevated lead levels comes a week after Benton Harbor, Michigan, reported the same issue.On Wednesday, Hamtramck, Michigan, officials released reports which indicated that the lead levels in the city are 17 parts per billion (ppb), exceeding the state's action level of 15 ppb. A recent test also revealed that annual tap water tests were conducted in the city, which showed high levels of lead.
He ordered $166,053 in back pay and $25,827 in retirement compensation. The state agency, which now is known as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, declined to comment but said an appeal was being considered.
A message seeking comment wasn't immediately returned by an attorney for Shekter Smith.
In 2014-15, Flint's water was pulled from the Flint River, a money-saving decision that was made by state-appointed managers who were running the poor city. The highly corrosive water wasn't properly treated before it flowed through aging pipes to roughly 100,000 residents, causing lead to leach from old pipes.
The disaster in majority-Black Flint has been described as environmental racism. In 2016, a task force appointed by then-Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, said his environmental agency misapplied lead-and-copper rules and "caused this crisis to happen."
Only Michigan official fired in Flint water scandal was wrongfully terminated: arbitrator
The only Michigan official who was fired after the 2016 Flint water scandal was wrongfully terminated, an arbitrator has determined.Liane Shekter Smith was awarded $191,880 from arbitrator Sheldon Stark, who determined that she was an "obvious target" of public pressure when she was fired from her role at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE).Shekter Smith was "an obvious target for scrutiny at precisely the time the media and public were clamoring for accountability," Stark wrote in his report, which was first reported by The Associated Press.
The arbitrator's report reveals behind-the-scenes moves by Snyder's influential fix-it man, Rich Baird, who asked Creagh to take control of the department after a director quit amid the scandal.
Creagh testified that Baird "encouraged Shekter Smith's termination."
Richard Benzie, who supervised the state engineers making key decisions in Flint, was not disciplined but "promoted and given more responsibility!" the arbitrator said in highlighting the different treatment.
After her dismissal, Shekter Smith was charged with misconduct in office and neglect of duty, and put on notice that an involuntary manslaughter charge would be pursued because bacteria in the water were linked to a fatal outbreak of Legionnaires' disease.
But charges were dropped in 2019 in exchange for a no-contest plea to an obscure misdemeanor. The case was erased after a year, under a deal with special prosecutor Todd Flood.
Flint's water quality greatly improved after it returned to a regional water supplier. Meanwhile, nine people, including Snyder and Baird, were charged with crimes in January after a new investigation. Their cases are pending.
Funding to replace the nation's dangerous lead service lines must stay in reconciliation bill .
Our leaders must not lose sight of the real lives that could be impacted by the stroke of a pen. The people of Benton Harbor, Flint and the Great Lakes region have waited long enough for help, and they will be watching. Donald Jodrey is the director of Federal Relations for the Alliance for the Great Lakes.