Top EPA official in Midwest resigning amid Flint crisis

Melissa Nann Burke, and Jim Lynch

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top Midwest official has resigned amid Flint’s water crisis as federal officials continue to grapple with what went wrong.

Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, who covers Michigan and the rest of the Midwest, is resigning effective Feb. 1. She offered to quit Thursday, and it was accepted by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

EPA orders state action on Flint water

McCarthy also has asked the agency’s Office of Inspector General to evaluate 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.

Snyder spokesman Dave Murray greeted the announcement by noting the GOP governor has said “government at all levels failed the people of Flint. He accepted accountability for that, and noted that federal, state and local leaders broke the trust of the people.”

Hedman told The Detroit News earlier this month that her hands were tied in bringing information to the public about the lack of corrosion controls in Flint’s water supply. Hedman couldn’t be reached Thursday for comment.

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 for 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’s Lake Huron after alarming lead levels were found in children.

Critics have charged Hedman, a 2010 appointee of President Barack Obama, with trying to keep the memo in-house and downplaying its significance.

Hedman told The News that instead of moving quickly to verify the concerns or take preventative measures, federal officials opted to prod the DEQ to act. Hedman said she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action, but it wasn’t completed until November.

Flint water crisis

Hedman argued federal law lays out the state and federal responsibilities in overseeing safe drinking water. The EPA’s role is to create treatment standards and monitoring techniques, and provide technical aid, she said. The state acts as the primary regulator of water operations.

On Thursday, the EPA ordered Michigan to take “immediate action to address serious and ongoing concerns” with Flint’s drinking water system.

“We’ve said since day one everyone at every level needs to be held accountable for whatever role they had in this crisis,” said State Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint. “It’s unfortunate the Legislature and state aren’t moving nearly as swiftly as the federal government now appears to be.”

Some Michigan Republicans have taken note of the EPA's shortcomings under a Democratic president.

"I urge President Obama to be a as much of a man as Gov. Snyder, by acknowledging in his own voice the federal government's admission of responsibility," said state Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland. "The buck doesn't stop at a regional administrator's desk."

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was scathing.

“Mismanagement has plagued the region for far too long and Ms. Hedman’s resignation is way overdue,” Chaffetz said. “The lack of accountability throughout the EPA has allowed problems to fester and crises to explode. One resignation will not change the top to bottom scrubbing EPA needs, but it is a step in the right direction.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, called the resignation a sign of improvement at the EPA.

“The EPA’s previous response to Flint was, frankly, part of the problem,” said Midwest Director Henry Henderson. “This new, more urgent approach shows different thinking from the top, reflects an awareness that the situation in Flint is just unacceptable, and it points the agency in the right direction.”

Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.