EPA head: ‘We missed opportunities’ in Flint

The Detroit News

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency Chief Gina McCarthy on Monday said the agency should have said something publicly about the threat of Flint’s water in the lead-contamination crisis.

In a commentary for the Washington Post on Monday, McCarthy repeated her prior defenses of the EPA’s regional officials in dealing with recalcitrant Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials who wouldn’t add corrosion controls to Flint’s water.

Former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman told The Detroit News in January that her department knew as early as April 2015 about the lack of corrosion controls in Flint’s water supply but said her hands were tied in bringing the information to the public. Hedman resigned her position Feb. 1, a move that McCarthy has called “courageous.”

“While we were repeatedly and urgently telling the state to do so, looking back, we missed opportunities late last summer to get our concerns onto the public’s radar,” McCarthy wrote in the commentary.

She is scheduled to testify Thursday to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform along with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

Critics such as Virginia Tech water quality expert Marc Edwards, who is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the House committee, have been pointed in their criticism of the EPA.

Edwards has said Hedman showed no urgency in addressing Flint’s water problems, particularly when she quashed a warning from Region 5 water quality expert Miguel Del Toral in a late June memo to then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling that the city’s water was contaminated. The administrator told The News she wasn’t sure the agency had the power to force the state to act.

“The preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency,” Hedman wrote in the July 1 email to 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.”

The revised and vetted memo was released four months later, in November, after elevated levels of lead were confirmed and Flint’s system had been switched back to the Detroit water system. Edwards has described Del Toral’s original memo as “100 percent accurate” in its assessment of the looming problem.

McCarthy does not address this issue in her commentary. Instead, she focused her blame on Michigan environmental regulators, whom Edwards also has criticized.

“The EPA’s regional office was also provided with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information. As a result, EPA staff members were unable to understand the scope of the lead problem until more than a year after the switch to untreated water,” McCarthy wrote.

“Michigan did not act with a sense of urgency to treat the system and inform the public in ways we have come to expect from our state partners.”

The EPA chief said in the commentary she wants to use Flint to focus attention on “this country’s much broader water infrastructure issues — especially in underserved low-income communities.” This is an issue Snyder said in mid-February he planned to address when he testifies Thursday to the committee.

The Snyder administration also has blamed the EPA for allowing the lead contamination to fester.