Watch­dog: EPA de­layed for 7 months in Flint wa­ter cri­sis

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Matthew Daly

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency had suf­fi­cient au­thor­ity and in­for­ma­tion to is­sue an emer­gency or­der to pro­tect res­i­dents of Flint, Michigan, from lead­con­tam­i­nated wa­ter as early as June 2015 — seven months be­fore it de­clared an emer­gency, the EPA’s in­spec­tor gen­eral said Thurs­day.

The Flint cri­sis should have gen­er­ated “a greater sense of ur­gency” at the agency to “in­ter­vene when the safety of drink­ing wa­ter is com­pro­mised,” In­spec­tor Gen­eral Arthur Elkins said in an in­terim re­port.

Flint’s drink­ing wa­ter be­came tainted when the city be­gan draw­ing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The im­pov­er­ished city of 100,000 north of Detroit was un­der state con­trol at the time. Reg­u­la­tors failed to en­sure wa­ter was treated prop­erly and lead from ag­ing pipes leached into the wa­ter sup­ply.

Fed­eral, state and lo­cal of­fi­cials have ar­gued over who’s to blame as the cri­sis con­tin­ues to force res­i­dents to drink bot­tled or fil­tered wa­ter. Doc­tors have de­tected el­e­vated lev­els of lead in hun­dreds of chil­dren.

A panel ap­pointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Sny­der con­cluded that the state is “fun­da­men­tally ac­count­able” for the lead cri­sis be­cause of de­ci­sions made by state en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tors and state-ap­pointed emer­gency man­agers who con­trolled the city.

Even so, Sny­der and other Repub­li­cans have faulted the EPA for a slow re­sponse.

“As Gov. Sny­der has stated all along, what hap­pened in Flint was the re­sult of failure of govern­ment at all lev­els,” spokes­woman Anna Heaton said Thurs­day.

State agen­cies have un­der­gone “cul­ture changes” and up­dated pro­ce­dures to pre­vent a re­cur­rence, so “it’s en­cour­ag­ing to see other agen­cies un­der­go­ing eval­u­a­tions that can re­sult in im­prove­ments to help peo­ple here and across the na­tion,” Heaton said.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver called the re­port “deeply trou­bling.”

Weaver, a Demo­crat who took of­fice af­ter the Flint cri­sis emerged, said agen­cies such as the EPA and the Michigan Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity are “in place to help en­sure the well-be­ing and safety of men, women and chil­dren, yet they failed when it comes to the man-made wa­ter dis­as­ter in Flint. Those re­spon­si­ble must be held ac­count­able.”

The re­port by the in­spec­tor gen­eral says of­fi­cials at the EPA’s Mid­west re­gion did not is­sue an emer­gency or­der be­cause they con­cluded that ac­tions taken by the state pre­vented the EPA from do­ing so. The re­port calls that in­ter­pre­ta­tion in­cor­rect and says that un­der fed­eral law, when state ac­tions are deemed in­suf­fi­cient, “the EPA can and should pro­ceed with an (emer­gency) or­der” aimed at “pro­tect­ing the public in a timely man­ner.”

With­out EPA in­ter­ven­tion, “the con­di­tions in Flint per­sisted, and the state con­tin­ued to de­lay tak­ing ac­tion to re­quire cor­ro­sion con­trol or pro­vide al­ter­na­tive drink­ing wa­ter sup­plies,” the re­port said.

Michigan of­fi­cials de­clared a public health emer­gency in Oc­to­ber 2015; the EPA de­clared an emer­gency three months later.

EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Gina McCarthy has ac­knowl­edged that her agency should have been more ag­gres­sive in test­ing the wa­ter and re­quir­ing changes, but told Congress that of­fi­cials “couldn’t get a straight an­swer” from the state about what was be­ing done in Flint.

Spokes­woman Mon­ica Lee said Thurs­day that EPA is­sued an or­der in the Flint case “as soon as it be­came ap­par­ent that the city and state were fail­ing to ad­dress the se­ri­ous prob­lems with the Flint drink­ing wa­ter sys­tem.”

The di­rec­tor of the EPA’s Mid­west re­gional of­fice stepped down Feb. 1 amid with­er­ing crit­i­cism that the agency failed to act sooner to ad­dress lead con­tam­i­na­tion in the pre­dom­i­nantly African-Amer­i­can city.

The of­fi­cial, Su­san Hed­man, de­nied wrong­do­ing, but said she was leav­ing to avoid be­com­ing a dis­trac­tion.

In a memo from June 2015, Miguel Del To­ral, a sci­en­tist in the EPA’s Mid­west of­fice, had warned of dan­ger­ously high lev­els of lead. He later crit­i­cized the agency for not tak­ing swift ac­tion.

The in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice said a fi­nal re­port on Flint is still be­ing de­vel­oped. Sep­a­rately, crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tors with the IG’s of­fice are as­sist­ing in an on­go­ing probe of the Flint cri­sis be­ing led by the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Flint Wa­ter Plant wa­ter tower is seen in Flint, Mich. The in­spec­tor gen­eral for the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency says the agency had au­thor­ity and suf­fi­cient in­for­ma­tion to is­sue an emer­gency or­der to pro­tect res­i­dents of Flint, Michigan, from lead-con­tam­i­nated wa­ter as early as June 2015, seven months be­fore it de­clared an emer­gency.

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