EPA orders state action on Flint water

Jim Lynch, and Melissa Nann Burke

The nation’s top environmental official ordered Michigan on Thursday to take “immediate action to address serious and ongoing concerns” with Flint’s drinking water system.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency invoked its authority to compel action when “an immediate and substantial endangerment exists” and “local authorities are inadequate to protect public health.”

“EPA has determined that the City of Flint’s and the State of Michigan’s responses to the drinking water crisis in Flint have been inadequate to protect the public health and that these failures continue,” the order reads.

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EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy addressed an accompanying letter to Gov. Rick Snyder, laying out specific steps that need to be taken to get the city’s long-running lead contamination problems under control. She expressed concern over “continuing delays and lack of transparency,” and directed the state to notify the EPA within a day of the state’s intent to comply.

“As you and I discussed, some progress has been made in addressing these recommendations, but there continues to be inadequate transparency and accountability with regard to provision of test results and actions taken, and those are critical for the people of Flint,” McCarthy wrote. “In addition, there is an increasing concern about the capacity to carry out the recommended actions and to safely manage Flint’s drinking water system.”

The directives include:

■Full implementation of EPA task force recommendations on sampling, with prompt and regular reporting to the federal agency and the public.

■Ensuring Flint has all of the professional assistance necessary to operate its water system safely.

■Soliciting, through a transparent public process, the input of “nationally recognized experts” on safe water treatment, sampling and distribution.

■Ensuring the city has the “technical, managerial and financial capacity” to safely transition from its current water source, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, to the newly formed Karegnondi Water Authority some time later this year.

Snyder spokesman Dave Murray told The Detroit News via email Thursday that “the state of Michigan stands ready to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and all agencies to fix the water crisis in Flint. We should all focus on the needs of Flint — both immediate and long-term. Making the city whole again must be our top priority.”

Also developing Thursday, Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, who covers Michigan and the rest of the Midwest, handed in her resignation, which is effective Feb. 1.

McCarthy has asked the agency’s Office of Inspector General to conduct an evaluation of Region 5’s public water supervision program under the Safe Drinking Water Act, specifically its state oversight and operational responsibilities and performance.

“The agency is working to understand what it could have done to prevent this crisis in the City of Flint, and the Inspector General has agreed to conduct a thorough, independent look at the effectiveness of this program,” the agency said.

Flint’s water crisis 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 health officials confirmed elevated levels of lead in the bloodstreams of Flint children, the city switched back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water system.

Lead can cause irreversible brain and developmental damage in children and infants who ingest it through water or lead-based paint. Health officials said its impacts can take years to manifest and require heightened monitoring to identify.

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Flint resident Keith Pemberton, who’s among the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit stemming from the water crisis, said he hoped more would be pursued legally to punish those responsible. He also welcomed the $80 million in aid the Obama administration offered to help repair Flint’s water infrastructure. “The cost to fix the system is going to be a lot more than that, but every little bit helps,” he said.

Still, the retiree worried about the long-term effects on the city.

“There’s not anybody that’s going to buy a house in Flint with the water poisoned,” he said. “So where do you go? What do you do?”

Flint water crisis

EPA’s directives

Among the actions the EPA is ordering the state of Michigan to take:

■Respond within 10 days to explain what the state is doing to address the EPA’s order

■Provide water quality data within 10 days, including identifying areas in the city with elevated blood-lead levels

■Provide an inventory of homes with lead service lines, and addresses of homes that have had service disruptions within the past year

■Continue to add corrosion inhibitors to Flint water “at levels sufficient to re-optimize corrosion control in the distribution system”

■Submit a plan within 14 days outlining measures to control corrosion and a sampling plan for daily water monitoring

■Engage a panel of independent, nationally recognized experts on drinking water treatment to make public recommendations to the city


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Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.