The Environmental Protection Agency is under fire following revelations that the regulator knew about the potential lead toxicity of Flint, Michigan’s water supply system as early as April of last year, but did not alert the public and instead engaged in a six-month, behind-the-scenes power struggle with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality over whether chemical treatments are necessary to prevent the Flint River’s water from leeching lead from plumbing into residents’ taps.
Truth In Media reported last month that Flint, Mich. Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency “over elevated lead content levels, connected to a problem with the city’s tap water system, that have been found in blood tests of local children.”
In 2014, a state-appointed emergency city manager unhooked Flint from Detroit’s water supply and began drawing water from the more corrosive Flint River, a move aimed at cutting costs that unleashed lead from aging city plumbing.
The Detroit News notes that EPA water expert Miguel Del Toral first sounded alarms about the potential lead toxicity in February of 2015 and issued a June internal memo warning about the problem. However, EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman reportedly downplayed the severity of Del Toral’s findings and kept them from the public, while seeking legal opinions on how to force the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to comply with EPA’s policy recommendations, which were not completed by attorneys until November.
State officials had already reconnected Flint to Detroit’s water supply in October in response to the crisis, but too late, as lead leeched from pipes had already contaminated the city’s water system.
“It is important to understand the clear roles here. Communication about lead in drinking water and the health impacts associated with that, that’s the role of DHHS, the county health department and the drinking water utility,” said Hedman. She maintains that the EPA’s role in this case was to provide water treatment standards, technical assistance, and monitoring techniques.
Critics say that when the Department of Environmental Quality refused to implement chemical treatments to prevent the Flint River’s water from leeching lead into city pipes, claiming further tests were necessary to demonstrate the need to do so, EPA officials could have warned the public about the imminent health risks in Del Toral’s findings. Instead, the bureaucracy kept the issue under wraps and spent six months trying to determine what legal authority it had to compel state officials to take Del Toral’s warning seriously.
Furthermore, Hedman’s emails to city officials as late as July showed little concern about the risks from higher-ups in the EPA, as she suggested that a report on the toxic water that city officials had seen should not have been shown to them yet and encouraged them to wait for further guidance from EPA after agency administrators had more time to review the information. That report was not released until November.
According to Reuters, on Monday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said, “EPA did its job but clearly the outcome was not what anyone would have wanted. So we’re going to work with the state, we’re going to work with Flint. We’re going to take care of the problem. We know Flint is a situation that never should have happened.”
McCarthy said that the EPA is planning to audit the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s water program.
President Obama declared a state of emergency on Saturday over Flint’s toxic water supply and allocated federal aid resources to assist in dealing with the crisis.
Hurley Medical Center conducted a study in September of last year that “presented findings of rise in blood lead levels of children less than 5 years old living within Flint zip codes 48501-48507 after the switch to Flint River water as the source.“