EPA stayed silent on Flint’s water despite knowing about likely contamination risks
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top Midwest official said her department knew as early as April about the lack of corrosion controls in Flint’s water supply — a situation that likely put residents at risk for lead contamination — but said her hands were tied in bringing the information to the public.
Starting with inquiries made in February, the federal agency battled Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality behind the scenes for at least six months over whether Flint needed to use chemical treatments to keep lead lines and plumbing connections from leaching into drinking water. The EPA did not publicize its concern that Flint residents’ health was jeopardized by the state’s insistence that such controls were not required by law.
Instead of moving quickly to verify the concerns or take preventative measures, federal officials opted to prod the DEQ to act, EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman told The Detroit News this week. Hedman said she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action, but it wasn’t completed until November.
The state didn’t agree to apply corrosion controls until late July and didn’t publicly concede until October that it erroneously applied the federal Lead and Copper Rule overseeing water quality.
An EPA water expert, Miguel Del Toral, identified potential problems with Flint’s drinking water in February, confirmed the suspicions in April and summarized the looming problem in a June internal memo. The state decided in October to change Flint’s drinking water source from the corrosive Flint River back to the Detroit water system.
Critics have charged Hedman with attempting to keep the memo’s information in-house and downplaying its significance.
As soon as the lack of corrosion controls became apparent, state and federal officials should have acted to protect the public, said Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, whose water analysis in 2015 helped uncover Flint’s lead contamination.
“At that point, you do not just have smoke, you have a three-alarm fire and should respond immediately,” said Edwards, who, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, has obtained dozens of key documents related to Flint’s crisis through public record requests. “There was no sense of urgency at any of the relevant agencies, with the obvious exception of Miguel Del Toral, and he was silenced and discredited.”
About five months after being alerted to the lack of corrosion controls, a researcher at Hurley Medical Center in Flint began in August detecting high levels of lead in the bloodwork of city children. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and, at high levels, may lead to seizures, coma and death, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hedman defended her agency’s handling of the Flint water situation, saying her water quality staff repeatedly worked to convince the DEQ that corrosion controls were needed — to no avail.
“Let’s be clear, the recommendation to DEQ (regarding the need for corrosion controls) occurred at higher and higher levels during this time period,” Hedman said in a Detroit News interview. “And the answer kept coming back from DEQ that ‘no, we are not going to make a decision until after we see more testing results.’ ”
Flint’s long-running water problems with drinking water have shaken Michigan’s government, leading to last month’s resignation of DEQ Director Dan Wyant and last week’s state declaration of an emergency in the city. An independent task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to review the situation placed the bulk of the blame for Flint’s crisis on the DEQ.
The federal government’s actions are worth exploring, said Chris Kolb, co-chairman of the task force.
“We have made a request to speak with a number of EPA employees,” said Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council and a former Democratic state representative.
Flint’s water crisis gained a national profile in the past week, as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff said Sunday the White House is “very concerned” and is monitoring the situation “very closely.” Former Obama Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democratic presidential hopeful, called on the administration Tuesday to “step up” with assistance for Flint as well as do an “expedited review” of the city’s water infrastructure.
DEQ and EPA staffers were at loggerheads over dueling interpretations of the Lead and Copper Rule — a 25-year-old regulation designed to protect drinking water from metals contamination. The interpretation of the rule proved to be crucial after the city — under Snyder-appointed emergency managers — switched from Lake Huron water provided by the Detroit system to Flint River water as a cost-saving move in the spring of 2014.
Following the switch, DEQ officials argued water testing, including two six-month periods of sampling, needed to be completed before making a decision on the need for corrosion controls. EPA officials, according to Hedman, wanted the controls implemented immediately out of concern for public health.
If they knew Flint’s lack of corrosion measures would likely result in lead reaching the drinking water — by June, testing would show it had — why didn’t EPA officials inform the public when the DEQ failed to act?
Hedman said federal law clearly lays out the state and federal responsibilities in overseeing safe drinking water. The EPA’s role is to establish treatment standards and monitoring techniques, and provide technical assistance, she said. The state acts as the primary regulator of water operations.
“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, the county health department and the drinking water utility.”
In addition, EPA officials argue that there wasn’t sufficient early evidence for any sweeping steps to be taken.
Hedman said the EPA talked with its legal counsel about its authority to compel action — a question that wouldn’t be straightened out for months. In the interim, she said her agency urged Michigan to have its Department of Health and Human Services provide information on precautions for residents.
EPA’s lack of urgency
But critics such as Edwards contend Hedman acted with no urgency, even behind the scenes. A week after the June 24 memo was circulated, an email exchange between Hedman and then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling showed no sense of alarm over the threat to public health and more concern about procedure.
“The preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency,” Hedman wrote in the July 1 email. “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. Edwards has described Del Toral’s original memo as “100 percent accurate” in its assessment of the looming problem.
Flint’s drinking water ills led to the resignations last month of both Wyant and DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel. It also caused the October reassignment of Liane Shekter Smith, then chief of DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance. The crisis prompted Snyder to switch Flint back over to the Detroit water system in mid-October until a new regional water authority using Lake Huron as its source is completed later this year.
Despite all of the moves, officials warn that unfiltered Flint water is still not safe to drink.
There has been no fallout for federal environmental officials.
“There’s been a failure at all levels to accurately assess the scale of the public health crisis in Flint, and that problem is ongoing,” said state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. “However, the EPA’s Miguel Del Toral did excellent work in trying to expose this disaster. Anyone who read his memo and failed to act should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Congressman Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, stressed that the lion’s share of responsibility for Flint’s situation lies with the state DEQ.
Yet he has questions about how the Lead and Copper Rule — ostensibly a safeguard for the public — may have contributed to EPA’s response. If changes are necessary, he wants them made.
“There is a legitimate concern about EPA’s performance in terms of alerting the public,” Kildee said. “And frankly, as a member of Congress, I want to know when there’s the potential of a health crisis in my district.”