The nation’s top environmental official on Monday defended her agency’s handling of Flint’s water situation over the past year and more — a stretch during which the city was declared in a state of emergency at the local, state and federal levels.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and particularly his state Department of Environmental Quality have been accused of failing to protect Flint residents. An independent task force identified the DEQ’s culture of passivity as a culprit in Flint’s drinking water becoming contaminated with lead.
But the head of EPA’s Region 5 covering the Midwest told The Detroit News last week her department was aware since April that Flint water was not being treated with chemicals to prevent lead from leaching — a situation that its water expert said would put residents at risk for contamination. The agency did not alert the public to those concerns.
“EPA did its job, but clearly the outcome was not what anyone would have wanted,” Reuters reported Gina McCarthy as saying during a Monday appearance in Washington, D.C. “We know Flint is a situation that never should have happened.”
The failure to include corrosion controls — chemicals such as phosphorus that seal the inside of water pipes to prevent leaching — is considered a key part of Flint’s long-running problems. In April 2014, the city switched to the Flint River for its drinking water, and problems quickly become apparent.
Without corrosion controls, residents immediately noticed their tap water was discolored, with strange smells and bad tastes. A year and a half later, Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards released sampling results that showed high levels of lead in city water. Soon after, Hurley Medical Center researcher Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha discovered elevated levels of lead in the bloodwork of Flint’s children.
EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman said last week that though her agency did not alert the public to the potential dangers, it followed proper protocol by repeatedly prompting Michigan’s DEQ to implement corrosion controls.
“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 (Department of Health and Human Services), the county health department and the drinking water utility.”
When DEQ officials failed to act, an in-house memo prepared by EPA water expert Miguel Del Toral in June outlined the problems posed by the lack of corrosion controls.
“Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water...,” Del Toral wrote. “The lack of any mitigating treatment for lead is of serious concern for residents that live in homes with lead service lines or partial lead service lines, which are common throughout the City of Flint.”
But when Del Toral’s memo began to circulate, internal documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Edwards show Hedman trying to dampen its impact.
“The preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency,” Hedman wrote in a July 1 email to then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling. “When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the city and DEQ will be responsible for following up with the city.”
Last week, Hedman’s office attempted to clarify her handling of the memo: “We were immediately concerned once this information was shared with staff. ... EPA regional staff at all levels repeatedly communicated to DEQ a recommendation for Flint to implement corrosion control, did so throughout the spring of 2015 and ultimately DEQ agreed on July 21.”
Documents show that while DEQ agreed in late July that corrosion controls were needed in Flint, corrosion controls were still missing from Flint’s water treatment program months later.
In her brief Monday comments, McCarthy did not mention whether Region 5’s actions were being evaluated. But an EPA task force is auditing DEQ’s handling of the situation “to make sure whatever improvements need to be made and get done quickly.”