Flint — A rare, escalating display of public accusations between government agencies has unfolded between the top federal and state environmental officials over Flint’s water crisis.
In her first trip to the area since Flint’s long-running water troubles began, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy had harsh words Tuesday for Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration and the appointed emergency managers who ran the city in the past half-decade.
Meanwhile, Keith Creagh, director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, included stern critiques of the EPA in written testimony submitted ahead of Wednesday’s U.S. House of Representatives hearing on the Flint situation.
While in Flint, McCarthy zeroed in on decisions made to separate from Flint’s longtime water provider, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. In April 2014, the city began drawing its own water from the Flint River, and has been in ever-increasing turmoil since.
“I think it’s very clear from what you’ve seen here that the federal government is here and doing its job, it’s time that the state government get here and do its job,” McCarthy said Tuesday afternoon. “Let me really hit the issue with as much clarity as I can. What happened in Flint should never have happened. I’m looking at whether we could or should have done anything differently.”
Federal and state officials have been engaged in an escalating finger-pointing match in recent weeks as the national spotlight on Flint’s problems has intensified.
“Let’s be really clear about why we are here today,” McCarthy said. “We are here today because a state-appointed emergency manager made the decision that the city of Flint would stop purchasing treated water that had well served them for 50 years and instead purchase untreated — and not treat that water — and by law the state of Michigan approved that switch and did not require corrosion control. All to save money.
“Now that state decision resulted in lead leaching out of lead service pipes and plumbing, exposing kids to excess amounts of lead. That’s why we’re here.”
In his statement, Creagh fires back at those criticisms, saying that from the time of the water switch until last month, “my observation is that the EPA did not display the sense of urgency that the situation demanded.”
“This is underscored by the conversations started in February 2015 regarding implementation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule,” Creagh wrote. “Between February and the end of September 2015, there were multiple email exchanges and conference calls between the MDEQ and EPA. Yet when the parties were unable to come to consensus on its implementation in July 2015, the EPA failed to provide the legal opinion requested by the MDEQ until November 2015.”
Late Tuesday, a Snyder spokesman responded specifically to McCarthy’s criticisms.
“Gov. Snyder has said the crisis in Flint is a result of the failure of government at all levels — including the federal government,” David Murray said. “The EPA had information last summer regarding high lead levels in Flint water, but specifically told the mayor of Flint that it was ‘premature to draw any conclusions’ about the data.”
McCarthy appeared Tuesday at a local command center alongside EPA’s Region 5 interim chief Robert Kaplan and local pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who detected high lead levels in the city’s children in the fall. Kaplan took over as the agency’s top Midwest official Tuesday following the departure of Susan Hedman. Hedman announced her resignation in January amid questions about EPA’s performance in Flint.
“We are going to see this through because we are committed to making sure the people of Flint have the protections and the piece of mind the deserve,” McCarthy said.
Recent testing identified 37 water samples taken from city residences where lead levels were beyond the threshold that state-provided filters are rated to handle. McCarthy said those cases may have involved issues with faucet aerators — the netting on the tip of the spout that has been found to collect lead build-up.
“You can unscrew them, clean them off,” she said. “If you take the filter off to clean them, put the filter back.”
McCarthy earlier met Tuesday with local pastors at First Trinity Baptist Church in downtown Flint to hear about their water efforts in the city.
Kaplan noted officials visited a command post and toured the Flint Water Treatment Plant to see the efforts being made “to meet the water quality goals.”
In October, then-DEQ Director Dan Wyant revealed that staffers had incorrectly interpreted the federal Lead and Copper Rule governing drinking water. They failed to require corrosion controls in the treatment of the river water.
Kaplan said Tuesday that he was originally surprised to learn the city was not treating the water, and that when the agency had first communicated with officials at the water treatment plant in August, they needed things that “they should have already had at the plant,” including “pumps and other equipment that is needed for water treatment.”
The EPA is now collecting samples at locations throughout Flint to test for the presence of chlorine in the drinking water system. Chlorine is used to disinfect drinking water and prevent the growth of viruses and bacteria such as E. coli. At appropriate levels, the presence of chlorine in drinking water is normal. The EPA officials said Tuesday that those chlorine levels are “starting to look good.”
Despite McCarthy’s criticisms of the state’s performance, her own agency’s actions in monitoring Flint’s slow-developing public crisis have also been called into question in recent weeks — specifically, the agency’s unwillingness to alert the public when it became aware of the potential for high lead levels. At several points after the city began drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014, EPA officials seemingly failed to call attention to a dangerous situation.
On Jan. 21, McCarthy stepped into the Flint crisis when she invoked the EPA’s authority to compel action in emergency cases. She ordered Michigan to take “immediate action to address serious and ongoing concerns” with the city’s drinking water system.
In a letter sent to Snyder last month, McCarthy wrote: “... There continues to be inadequate transparency and accountability with regard to provision of test results and actions taken, and those are critical for the people of Flint. In addition, there is an increasing concern about the capacity to carry out the recommended actions and to safely manage Flint’s drinking water system.”
Early in 2015, DEQ officials learned that a six-month round of testing Flint’s water had shown lead contamination beyond the 5 parts per billion level deemed acceptable by federal regulations. The DEQ did not take immediate steps to utilize corrosion controls at that point, a move new Director Keith Creagh admitted this month was a mistake.
Yet it is unclear if EPA officials were on top of the situation to raise alarms about the potential threat to public health. Corrosion controls are chemicals added to the treatment plant that form a coating on the inside of pipes to prevent lead from leaching into the water.
“I’m telling you that when we asked whether corrosion control was happening, we were told that it was, and a few weeks later we were told it wasn’t,” McCarthy said Tuesday in reference to communication with a DEQ staffer with the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.
In April, an inquisitive EPA employee finally elicited an admission from the DEQ that the river water was not being treated with corrosion controls. Again, the EPA declined to alert the public.
And in June, that same employee, water expert Miguel Del Toral, produced an in-house memo explaining the dangers posed by the lack of corrosion measures. The federal agency again failed to alert the public and had been criticized for trying to downplay its significance and keep Del Toral on the sidelines.
In his testimony, Creagh said DEQ did not receive an official revised version of Del Toral’s memo until November.
“Legitimate concerns raised by EPA’s own expert staff were not elevated or provided to either the city or state for review and action until after the state’s (action in Flint) was well underway,” he wrote.
McCarthy’s remarks in Flint Tuesday also touched on Del Toral’s work.
“Miguel has never been silenced and he never will (be),” McCarthy said Tuesday. “Miguel is working with us and doing a great job, and he has been for our agency.”
Earlier this month, Hedman, then EPA Region 5 administrator, addressed the issues by saying it wasn’t her agency’s job to make announcements regarding public health. Instead, she said federal officials continually pressed Michigan to implement corrosion controls — something the state would not do for months.
“It is important to understand the clear roles here,” Hedman said. “Communication about lead in drinking water and the health impacts associated with that, that’s the role of DHHS, the county health department and the drinking water utility.”