EPA’s McCarthy: Make water rules ‘as tough as you can’

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Monday despite the progress made in remedying the lead-contamination crisis in Flint, “it continues to be a very challenging situation.”

Last week, the EPA told Flint that it must treat and test drinking water from a new Lake Huron pipeline for at least three months before providing it to residents, revising a previous enforcement order issued by the federal agency in January.

EPA said the city must submit a “new water source treatment plan” to state and federal regulators within three weeks, outlining the steps to complete its pending connection to the Karegnondi Water Authority.

“One of the things we need to make sure that we do is appropriate oversight as aggressively as we can,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.

“We didn’t want what happened before — which was, unbeknownst to us, the system gets changed, it is not properly tested, it is not properly managed and we ended up with the situation in Flint. We did not want that to happen again.”

She added, “If there’s one lesson learned it’s that when it comes to drinking water, you put in writing, and you make it as tough as you can.”

McCarthy spoke Monday at the National Press Club, where she gave a speech and took questions from reporters and the audience.

Criticism over the EPA’s handling of the Flint water crisis led to McCarthy testifying before a House oversight panel in March. At that time, McCarthy said she wasn’t sure her agency had done anything wrong, but she wished it had been more “aggressive.”

McCarthy was asked about last month’s report from the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General, which said the agency had the authority and information necessary to force corrective action and protect public health in Flint in June 2015. It took seven months before the EPA on Jan. 21 issued an emergency order laying out steps for Flint and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials to bring the situation under control.

McCarthy said her agency has increased the attention it pays to drinking water as a result of Flint, especially in other shrinking cities that lost population due to a decline in the manufacturing base or other changes.

In those places, the drinking water system is often too large, leaving stagnant water standing in the pipes. In Flint, the city changed from the Detroit water system to the Flint River, and untreated water ended up leaching lead from aging pipes.

“How we manage those situations is going to be important,” McCarthy said. Flint’s “ability to be able to economically manage their system is under threat even since we’re getting it to the levels that it needs to be. And I think we have that challenge all across the United States.”

Lessons learned in Flint are being shared across the nation, she said. The EPA is developing a National Drinking Water Action Plan with strategies and guidelines for local and state governments to advance clean, safe and affordable drinking water, she said.

“How do we invest in infrastructure — not simply for new infrastructure but how we look at what infrastructure exists that is either decaying, too big, needs additional treatment in the case of drinking water, and how do we move that forward?” McCarthy said.

“We’ve become very accustomed to not having to worry about drinking water and waste water. We can no longer have that luxury.”


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