Inspector: EPA 'management weakness' prolonged Flint crisis

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
In this Sept. 21, 2017, file photo, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Building is shown in Washington. Democratic lawmakers are joining scientists in denouncing an industry-backed proposal to dramatically limit what kind of science the Environmental Protection Agency can consider. Industry backers say the rule would increase regulatory transparency.

Lansing — "Management weaknesses" delayed federal intervention in the Flint water crisis after Michigan failed to prevent lead contamination, according to a report released Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General.

The 69-page report highlights known failures by both state and federal regulators that led to the Flint water contamination crisis, but it provides a new level of specificity and includes recommendations to improve oversight. An EPA critic said while the "lessons learned" are welcome, the report lacks any hint of apology for the federal agency's prolonging of the public health crisis.

“While Flint residents were being exposed to lead in drinking water, the federal response was delayed, in part, because the EPA did not establish clear roles and responsibilities, risk assessment procedures, effective communication and proactive oversight tools,” according to the report.

The inspector general cited management problems at the EPA and its Region 5 office in Chicago, which oversees Michigan. Regional managers did not properly address state actions to “disinvest” in safe drinking water requirements dating back to 2010, concluding they were intended to be temporary and not affect public health, inspectors said.

The Region 5 office also lacked an effective risk assessment process, the report said. While initial bacterial violations alone would not have pointed to lead contamination, “the combined information available to Region 5 painted a picture of a system at risk from multiple angles.”

In January 2016, The Detroit News reported that Region 5 water expert Miguel del Toral warned of Flint water problems in a June internal memo, but then-Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman said she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action that wasn’t completed until November 2015 — after the state finally recognized the crisis.

Hedman quickly retired after The News' report, but no EPA officials were ever fired over the Flint crisis. In a March 2016 congressional hearing, Obama EPA chief Gina McCarthy defended Hedman as "courageous" and blamed the state's misleading and insufficient information for prolonging the crisis. 

Former State EPA Administrator Susan Hedman appears to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in Washington.

The state didn’t agree to apply corrosion controls until late July and didn’t publicly concede until October 2015 that it erroneously applied the federal Lead and Copper Rule overseeing water quality. The state decided in October to change Flint’s drinking water source from the corrosive Flint River back to the Detroit water system.

The report, based on two years of research and inquires, dings the federal agency but also repeatedly notes the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality holds primary responsibility for ensuring compliance with safe drinking water requirements.

Communication between the EPA and DEQ “did not convey key information about human health risks from lead,” the report said.

Report hits DEQ

MDEQ did not properly develop and maintain an inventory of lead service lines needed to ensure appropriate test sampling of Flint water, according to the inspector general. The state also failed to ensure Flint continues to use corrosion control chemicals when the city began using Flint River water in April 2014 and did not provide the EPA with “accurate information” regarding treatment.

The state “did not issue a notice of violation or take other formal enforcement action regarding either requirement until August 2015,” the report said. “Instead, the MDEQ advised Flint public water system staff to conduct additional tests and to delay corrosion control treatment installation. The decision to delay corrosion control treatment prolonged residents’ exposure to lead.”

Virginia Tech water expert Marc Edwards, who helped expose the Flint water crisis and has criticized state and federal agencies, said “there is a lot to like” about the new report and recommendations for improved oversight.

“That said, being a large government agency in post-truth America means never having to say you’re sorry,” he added.

The EPA Office of Inspector General first announced the investigation in January 2016, five days after then-President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in the city, freeing up $5 million in federal aid. The Obama administration denied Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's request for a major disaster declaration because the Flint water contamination crisis was a man-made calamity not created by fire, flood or explosion.

Inspectors issued a preliminary report in October 2016, saying the EPA had the authority and enough information about Flint water lead contamination to issue an emergency order to protect public health as early as June 2015, seven months before it's Chicago-based Region 5 office did so.

McCarthy and Snyder testified before a congressional committee in March 2016 and faced withering criticism for state and federal oversight failures but resisted calls to resign.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed criminal charges against several former and current state employees and officials over the lead contamination and Legionnaires' disease outbreaks that killed at least 12 and sickened 79 others.

Del Toral began raising concerns about Flint water lead content in early 2015 and pressed the DEQ for information about corrosion controls. He confirmed the suspicions in April of that year and two months later summarized the looming problem in an internal memo.

By June 2015, EPA Region 5 knew at least four homes had water with lead concentrations exceeding the federal action level of 15 parts per billion, according to an earlier inspector general report.  It was not until Jan. 21, 2016, that EPA finally exerted its authority by issuing an emergency order that laid out steps for Flint and the state to resolve the crisis.

In congressional testimony a month later, Edwards criticized the EPA’s Hedman for discrediting the internal report. But he told Congress the primary blame lies with a few state environmental regulators who “misled” Michigan leaders and residents and tried to “cover up” proof of high lead levels.

EPA's management shortfalls

Among its recommendations in the new report, the Office of Inspector General said the EPA needs to address management shortfalls and revise the federal Lead and Copper Rule to more clearly define monitoring and corrosion control treatment protocols.

The EPA, in a written response, said its Office of Water agrees with long-running calls to update the Lead and Copper Rule and hopes to do so by Feb. 28, 2019. The office will continue to evaluate input and peer-reviewed science “to ensure that the revised rule reflects the best ways to improve public health protection,” the EPA said.

Snyder has called the federal Lead and Copper Rule “dumb and dangerous” and pushed for tougher new state standards.

New rules finalized last month by the Michigan environmental department will lower the state’s lead action level to 12 parts per billion in 2025, down from the federal standard of 15 ppb, and require communities to eventually remove all lead service lines.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said the Lead Copper Rule has not been updated in more than 25 years and suggested President Donald Trump's administration has delayed efforts to do so. Kildee plans to lead a congressional delegation on a Flint tour Friday to show colleagues the continued effects of the crisis.

“As I have said before, the Flint water crisis was a failure of all levels of government,” Kildee said in a statement. “Justice for Flint families comes in many forms and the release of this report is one form of holding those responsible accountable."

The EPA “closely reviewed” all OIG recommendations first documented in an April draft report and agrees with them, a spokesman said Thursday. Several have already been implemented, he said, and the EPA provided the inspector’s office with a plan for corrective action with completion dates.

 “The agency is actively engaging with states to improve communications and compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to safeguard human health,” spokesman Enesta Jones said in a statement.

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