EPA should have issued Flint order 7 months earlier

Jim Lynch, Jonathan Oosting, and Melissa Nann Burke

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had the authority and information necessary to force corrective action and protect public health in Flint seven months before it issued an emergency order over the city’s lead contamination crisis, according to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General.

A management alert issued Thursday said officials with EPA’s Region 5 could have acted as early as June 2015, more than a year after Flint switched water sources, which resulted in issues of bad tastes, odors and, eventually, documented lead contamination.

It was not until Jan. 21, 2016 — months after testing had shown high levels of lead in the drinking water — that EPA finally exerted its authority. An emergency order issued that day laid out steps for Flint and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials to bring the situation under control.

“These situations should generate a greater sense of urgency,” said EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins in a statement. “Federal law provides the EPA with emergency authority to intervene when the safety of drinking water is compromised. Employees must be knowledgeable, trained and ready to act when such a public health threat looms.”

EPA’s Region 5 administration, based in Chicago, has come under harsh criticism for its oversight of Flint’s situation. One of the agency’s scientists began raising concerns about the water’s lead content in April 2015. Miguel Del Toral, an agency water expert, began pressing the DEQ for information about whether Flint was using anti-corrosive chemicals in its water.

Two months later, he urged EPA colleagues to review whether Flint had violated federal corrosion control requirements. By then, 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 the new report.

The report does not spare other government agencies for their roles in Flint’s water crisis, indicating that by June 2015, “EPA Region 5 also knew that the state and local authorities were not acting quickly to protect human health.”

Fifteen years before Flint’s crisis, EPA established its authority to step into situations where state and local agencies fail to act quickly to protect public health. In the case of Flint, agency officials failed to move at the right time, according to the report.

“While events were complicated, given what we know about the consequences of the Flint drinking water contamination, it is clear that EPA intervention was delayed,” the OIG report reads. “The EPA must be better prepared and able to timely intercede in public health emergencies like that which occurred in Flint.”

In response to the inspector general’s findings, EPA released a statement Thursday that read: “EPA fully understands the importance of providing additional training to appropriate management and staff on drinking water enforcement authorities, which is why we have already completed much of the training described in the inspector general’s report. We are also committed to updating the agency’s guidance for Safe Drinking Water Act emergency authority, as outlined by the OIG.

“EPA issued an order to the City of Flint and the State of Michigan as soon as it became apparent that the city and state were failing to address the serious problems with the Flint drinking water system. We will continue to review the OIG’s findings.”

In March, Gov. Rick Snyder appeared before a congressional committee alongside EPA Director Gina McCarthy. That hearing produced plenty of back-and-forth between the two over responsibilities in the Flint crisis.

Anna Heaton, a Snyder spokeswoman, in an email response to questions Thursday, said the state is working to prevent a situation like Flint’s water crisis from recurring.

“As Gov. Snyder has stated all along, what happened in Flint was the result of failure of government at all levels and all levels of government working together is what will help move Flint forward,” Heaton said. “State agencies have undergone culture changes and updated procedures to ensure nothing like this will happen again in Michigan.

“It’s encouraging to see other agencies undergoing evaluations that can result in process improvements to help people here and across the nation. There is still potential for a crisis of this nature to occur in other states, and hopefully that can be prevented.”

During March’s congressional testimony, McCarthy faced harsh questions from Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the U.S. House Oversight Committee, who scoffed at the agency’s action in Flint and urged her to resign.

In response, McCarthy said: “I don’t know if we did everything right. That’s the challenge that I’m facing. I would have hoped we would have been more aggressive.”

Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman resigned her position in January. No EPA officials have been fired over the Flint situation.

Separately, criminal investigators with the Office of Inspector General are assisting in an ongoing probe of the Flint crisis being led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan, analyst Charles Brunton said in an official podcast released alongside Thursday’s report.

EPA Region 5 did not issue an emergency order as early as it could have because staff “believed they were unable to do anything because the state was already taking action,” Brunton said. But that is not the case when “the state action is not protecting the public from the contaminants in a timely fashion.”

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver called it “deeply troubling” the EPA had reliable information on Flint’s water contamination but waited several months to issue its emergency order.

“This failure is yet another reason why Congress should release the much needed funds for Flint as we work to recover and rebuild from this man-made disaster,” Weaver said in a statement, referencing proposals set for further consideration after the Nov. 8 election.

State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said Thursday the Michigan emergency manager law and DEQ “created this problem” but the EPA could have done more to protect residents.

“I’ve said from the beginning that this crisis required a more urgent response and that everyone who failed Flint families should be held accountable,” Ananich said in a statement. “Hopefully reports like the one today will result in policy changes that make sure no other community had to endure what we did.”

The EPA has begun to address internal issues that led to the delay but can and should do more, according to the Office of Inspector General report, which also recommends the agency update its guidance on emergency orders and require all drinking water staff to attend training.


(313) 222-2034