EPA admits fault, blames Michigan officials over Flint

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency admitted Tuesday it should have acted more swiftly in addressing the issues with Flint's drinking water.

An EPA spokeswoman told Reuters that the federal agency did not act fast enough in addressing the growing problem in the city.

While the federal agency worked to “repeatedly and urgently communicate the steps the state needed to take to properly treat its water, those necessary actions were not taken as quickly as they should have been,” the EPA said in a Tuesday statement.

While the situation in Flint was “unusual,” the EPA said its ability to oversee state environmental regulators’ management of the situation was “impacted by failures and resistance at the state and local levels to work with us in a forthright, transparent and proactive manner consistent with the seriousness of the risks to public health,” the statement says. “We must ensure this situation never happens again.”

The agency’s statement follows a defense Monday by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy of the agency’s handling of Flint’s water situation over the past year and more.

“EPA did its job, but clearly the outcome was not what anyone would have wanted,” Reuters reported McCarthy as saying during a Monday appearance in Washington. “We know Flint is a situation that never should have happened.”

The EPA noted Tuesday that it’s examining its early handling of the lead contamination of drinking water in Flint.

Gov. Rick Snyder and particularly his state Department of Environmental Quality have been accused of failing to protect Flint residents. An independent task force identified the DEQ’s culture of passivity as a culprit in Flint’s drinking water becoming contaminated with lead.

The head of EPA’s Region 5 covering the Midwest told The Detroit News last week her department was aware since April that Flint water was not being treated with chemicals to prevent lead from leaching — a situation that its water expert said would put residents at risk for contamination. The agency did not alert the public to those concerns.

Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman said last week that, though her agency did not alert the public to the potential dangers, it followed proper protocol by repeatedly prompting Michigan’s DEQ to implement corrosion controls.

“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 (Department of Health and Human Services), the county health department and the drinking water utility.”

Flint’s lead-contaminated water system stems from the city’s switch to Flint River water in April 2014 while under control of a Snyder-appointed emergency manager. In October, after state health officials confirmed elevated levels of lead in the bloodstreams of Flint children, the city was switched back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water system.

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