EPA chief defends handling of Flint water crisis

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seemed to defend the handling of the Flint water crisis by her agency and the former head of the EPA’s Midwest Region 5 when asked Thursday during a House Agriculture Committee hearing.

Under questioning by Republican U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar of Midland, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy spoke about the Feb. 1 resignation of Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman.

“She knew that she had already become a focus of attention, and she thought the entire focus should be on what we do for the people of Flint,” McCarthy said. “It was a courageous act on her part.”

Moolenaar, whose district borders Genesee County, asked about McCarthy’s recent trip to Flint, where she focused blame for the crisis on the state, where two officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have been suspended or fired over the handling of the lead contamination of the drinking water.

McCarthy noted she has never said her agency did everything right.

“What I said was a situation like Flint should never have happened,” she said.

“I explained what I thought were the inadequacies of state oversight in primacy. They are the ones that have the authority under the law, and they are the ones with the primary obligation, but I in no way said that EPA — that I had done some sort of thorough analysis of what else we could have or should have done.”

Critics have demanded accountability for the government’s handling of the water crisis and how both the Michigan DEQ and EPA dismissed complaints and test results for months as city residents continued to consume lead-tainted water. House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, held a hearing last week the focused on the actions of the DEQ and EPA.

Moolenaar asked McCarthy why her agency didn’t act sooner to take corrective action in Flint, after learning last year about the lack of proper anti-corrosion treatment to prevent the river water from leaching lead into the drinking water supply.

“I believe in April of last year, the state actually told us – and corrected a misimpression they gave us — that corrosion control was not happening. EPA vigorously, from that point forward, recommended to the state that they take action to get corrosion control up and running,” McCarthy said.

“Were there other things that we could have done, or should have done? That is the focus of our attention at this point. But we did oversee this and recommend the appropriate steps for the state to take.”

Moolenaar noted EPA water expert Miguel Del Toral learned from a Flint resident in late February 2015 about the lack of corrosion control in city water, as well as flawed testing protocols used by officials in Flint.

Hedman downplayed a memo that Del Toral sent to Flint’s mayor about the issue in late June. She sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action by the state, but that opinion wasn’t completed until November — after the state had acknowledged the lead contamination and switched Flint back to Lake Huron water.

Moolenaar argued that McCarthy’s agency could have informed the public about the health risk in Flint using power granted to it under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.

The law states, in part, that “the administrator, upon receipt of information that a contaminant which is present in or is likely to enter a public water system or an underground source of drinking water ... which may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of persons, and that appropriate State and local authorities have not acted to protect the health of such persons, may take such actions as he may deem necessary in order to protect the health of such persons.”

“I got to believe that anyone who looks at the documentation of the law would be able to give the opinion that the EPA has authority in this matter. Wouldn’t you agree with that?” Moolenaar said.

“When you say no action was take by EPA, I think you minimize the communication that EPA had — that we normally have with states — that are very clear that corrosion control should have been done from Day 1, and it needed to continue,” McCarthy said.

“It was the state of Michigan that was challenging whether additional testing was necessary to make that determination,” she added.

Moolenaar followed up by asking if McCarthy knew about it, why did she had not taken action.

“We clearly did everything we could to get the state of Michigan to do what they were supposed to do. When I became aware and engaged, that is when you saw an enforcement action taken,” McCarthy said.

Moolenaar noted that Flint-related records and communications by Region 5 have been requested by Congress and asked when they would be produced. McCarthy responded that her agency has many pending Freedom of Information Act requests, and she did not know what the response schedule was.

“But this is pretty important,” Moolenaar said.

“There is nothing actually more important right now than getting that city clean water, and you’ll see a large federal presence, including EPA, who is responsible to get that done,” McCarthy said.

A Moolenaar spokesman said after the hearing the EPA should expedite all open record requests related to Flint, particularly those regarding Hedman’s handling of the crisis.

House lawmakers voted 416-2 on Wednesday to pass a Flint-related bill that would clarify when the EPA should notify the public when concentrations of lead or other contaminants in drinking water exceed safe levels.

The Safe Drinking Water Act Improved Compliance Awareness Act would direct the EPA to notify state officials of the detected contamination within 24 hours. If the state doesn’t alert the public in 24 hours, then the EPA may do so. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

President Barack Obama also has asked the EPA to clarify rules and procedures on the relationship between federal and state officials, so the federal agency is not expected to keep private information critical to public health.

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736