EPA accuses state of Michigan, Flint of delaying compliance with Flint water order
Washington — Federal officials say there continue to be delays in Michigan and Flint’s compliance with the emergency order issued a month ago by the Environmental Protection Agency in response to the city’s water crisis.
One of the “ongoing problems” identified by the EPA is the failure to develop a comprehensive plan to ensure proper anti-corrosion treatment of drinking water in Flint’s water system to prevent lead leaching from service lines into the water supply.
“Having a comprehensive and interactive plan, instead of individual pieces of a strategy, is essential to protect the residents of Flint,” Mark Pollins, director of the EPA’s Water Enforcement Division, wrote Friday to state and city leaders.
Pollins also said the city has not demonstrated it has adequate qualified staff to ensure that Flint meets federal drinking water law and regulations. Such staffing was supposed to be in place by Feb. 5 under the emergency order.
Pollins’ letter Friday was addressed to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Keith Creagh; George L. Krisztian, DEQ’s Flint Action Plan coordinator; Anthony Chubb, the city’s attorney; and Mike Glasgow, Flint’s utilities administrator.
Pollins said that, while the city has made progress in complying with the emergency order, both issues require “immediate attention,” and he requested a meeting next week to discuss a timeline for the anti-corrosion plan.
He noted that both issues relate to “key provisions” of the order, and that the city cannot switch away from the treated water it’s currently purchasing from Detroit’s system to another water source “unless and until the current system is fully optimized and running properly, and the city demonstrates it has the technical, managerial and financial capacity to operate the public water system in compliance with” federal law and regulations on clean drinking water.
Pollins did praise the “positive steps” that Michigan has taken to improve transparency, including an updated website “that makes it much easier to track the status of actions on each provision of the order.”
Michigan DEQ said it received EPA’s letter Friday and is reviewing and responding to it.
“In the meantime, we look forward to continuing our collaborative work with the EPA to ensure that Flint water is safe to drink and that the proper regulatory support is in place,” DEQ spokeswoman Melanie Brown said by email.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy issued the Jan. 21 emergency order to Michigan DEQ, laying out specific steps for the state to get Flint’s lead contamination problems under control. She invoked her agency’s authority to compel action when “an immediate and substantial endangerment exists” and “local authorities are inadequate to protect public health.”
The agency’s 18-page order directed the state to fully implement task force recommendations, among other items.
The next day, Creagh disputed whether McCarthy’s agency had the legal authority to require a state to take the actions outlined in the directive. Creagh also said the order was filled with “factual omissions and legal errors.”
Friday’s letter wasn’t the first time EPA has written to state and local officials about its concerns about non-compliance with the order.
Pollins attached a Feb. 8 letter with an 11-point list of “deficiencies,” including failure to provide a plan for daily monitoring of water-quality parameters in the city’s distribution system, and failure to provide all lead-water testing results for the city since January 2013.
Creagh responded to Pollins on Feb. 11, suggesting “more regular meetings and open dialogue” regarding the order “so that all parties are clear on the deliverables.”
“While we continue to dispute the legality and efficacy of the order, we are fully committed to the ultimate goal: To ensure the health and safety of Flint’s water supply as quickly as possible,” Creagh wrote.
He noted that the EPA order’s failure to distinguish between the city, as the water supplier, and the state, as the regulator, “continues to create confusion.”
Among the items that EPA says the state and city still need to accomplish are to respond in writing to the Flint task force’s recommendations, which include identifying 150 high-priority sites for lead-water sampling from homes with aging or lead service lines; providing the lead-water testing results back to 2013; providing an inventory of homes with lead-service lines (which was due Jan. 31); and supplying plans and schedules to ensure the water-treatment plant is “consistently and reliably” meeting performance criteria.
The federal agency wants to see the city “immediately” take steps to fill vacancy city water department positions. It also wants confirmation that officials have identified all areas of Flint with elevated blood-lead levels.
For 22 months, Flint has dealt with lead contamination stemming from a switch in the city’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014. The crisis has been blamed in part on state officials’ failure to require Flint to add anti-corrosion treatment to the river water to keep lead from leaching from the city’s aging service lines.
State environmental officials said they believed the federal Lead and Copper Rule required two six-month rounds of testing before a determination on the use of corrosion measures needed to be made. The EPA said it repeatedly and urgently communicated the steps that Michigan needed to take to properly treat Flint’s water.