Lawmakers want update on watchdog’s Flint probe

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Several Michigan lawmakers are asking what happened to the probe of the Flint water crisis initiated more than two years ago by the watchdog at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township and Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters requested an update from Inspector General Arthur Elkins on when the full inquiry will be completed and released publicly. The investigation was announced Jan. 21, 2016, and the evaluation began that February.

“This information will be very helpful in ensuring that a similar crisis never happens again, either in Flint or any other community across America,” the three Democrats wrote to Elkins, requesting a response by Friday.

“Equally important, it will also help to bring justice to the thousands of families in Flint who are still living with the effects of this ongoing crisis.”

The IG’s Office issued an initial report in October 2016, saying its ongoing review would examine the circumstances of and EPA’s response to the water crisis, including the agency’s use of its oversight authority.

That initial report included a “management alert” finding the agency had the authority and information necessary to force corrective action and protect public health in Flint seven months before it issued an emergency order over the city’s lead contamination crisis.

An agency scientist began raising concerns about the water's lead content in April 2015, but it was not until Jan. 21, 2016 — months after testing had indicated high levels of lead in the water — that EPA issued the emergency order.

In that initial report, the IG also said that EPA Region 5, which covers Michigan, “knew that state and local authorities were not acting quickly to protect human health.”

A spokeswoman for the IG’s Office said Tuesday its inquiry is a “program evaluation” and not an investigation.

“At this time, we anticipate issuing a final report during early summer 2018. As our review is ongoing, however, this is only an estimate,” Jennifer Kaplan, deputy assistant inspector general for congressional and public affairs, said by email.

She said the IG’s audits and evaluations follow government auditing standards, and the process typically takes “many months” to complete.

“We look forward to delivering a final report when this evaluation has concluded,” Kaplan added.

More than 1,700 Flint-area residents and property owners sued the EPA last year for “mishandling” the city’s water crisis, seeking more than $722 million in damages.

They argue in part that the agency failed to immediately determine if local and state officials were taking proper measures to address water contamination.

The government last week asked a federal judge in Michigan to dismiss the suit.

In testimony before Congress and elsewhere, state officials have faulted the EPA for not displaying more urgency in dealing with the matter.

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy blamed the crisis in part on poor communication and confusing or incomplete information from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.