Mich. reps push bill to let EPA warn of lead threat

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A new bill in Congress aims to avoid catastrophes such as the lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water by clarifying that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to notify the public if there is a danger from lead in their water system.

The bill — to be introduced by Democratic U.S. Sens. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township and Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint — would direct the EPA to notify residents and local health departments if the amount of lead found in a public water system requires action — absent notification by state officials.

It comes as the White House said Wednesday that President Barack Obama has asked the EPA to clarify rules and procedures governing the relationship between federal and state officials, so the federal agency is not expected to keep private information critical to public health.

“That is obviously a situation that we need to avoid,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at Wednesday’s press briefing.

The legislation is in response to the inaction of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which for months didn’t alert Flint residents of the health risks caused by a lack of water treatment to avoid the leaching of lead from service lines into the water supply. State officials later admitted test results weren’t analyzed correctly and the federal Lead and Copper Rule should have been interpreted to force more aggressive action.

The legislation also follows a report by The Detroit News that an EPA water expert, Miguel Del Toral, initially identified potential problems with Flint’s drinking water in February 2015 and kept raising alarms through June. EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman told The News that instead of moving quickly to verify the concerns or take preventative measures, federal officials opted to prod the DEQ to act.

Hedman said she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action by the state, but it wasn’t completed until November. The state finally decided in late September that Flint’s children had been exposed to high levels of lead in the drinking water and in October helped the city switch from corrosive Flint River water back to the Detroit water system until a new regional pipeline is completed later this year.

“It is clear the State of Michigan did not fulfill their responsibility to prevent lead from leaching into Flint’s drinking water system or to help make the public aware of the danger in their drinking water,” Peters said in a statement.

“This legislation will make it clear the EPA can take action if a state is dragging their feet and endangering the health of its residents.”

Stabenow noted that, after complaints from Flint residents, EPA tests found that the water was dangerous to drink.

“The State of Michigan chose to criticize and ignore those findings, which has caused irreversible harm to potentially a generation of children,” Stabenow said. “This bill will give the EPA clear legal authority to provide notice to the public when a state is not taking action on a public health safety crisis.”

After The Detroit News’ report about EPA inaction, Hedman decided to resign Feb. 1. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has asked the agency’s Office of Inspector General to evaluate Region 5’s public water supervision program under the Safe Drinking Water Act, specifically its state oversight and operational responsibilities and performance.

“We need to make sure that procedure doesn’t unnecessarily inhibit the ability of the EPA to make public information that could have a significant impact on the health and well-being of the public,” Earnest said.

DEQ Director Kevin Creagh told The News last week that the department has reassigned two DEQ drinking water officials away from Flint duties. Last week, the DEQ suspended two unidentified department officials pending further investigation that may result in their firing.

The measure also allows the EPA to publicly disclose the results of any lead monitoring conducted by public water systems. Currently, the responsibility for such notification lies at the local and state levels.

Kildee said, “The state has a moral responsibility to act, and it must do more to help sure that Flint families and children get the immediate and-long term resources they need to help cope with this terrible crisis.”

Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, said in an interview Wednesday he had not reviewed the legislation yet but “the idea of a remedy that includes transparency and open communication is, to me, is essential in the long run.”

“We’ve gone through a very difficult process to learn this difficult lesson, and we can’t move forward without doing everything we can to right some of these long-standing wrongs,” he said.


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