EPA faces questions on why it didn't act sooner in Flint

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Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) on Thursday pressed an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforcement official on why the agency did not step in sooner and take action to address the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich.

During a hearing on agency discretion in setting regulatory fines, Peters said the emergency order the EPA issued on Jan. 21 stated that the presence of lead in the city’s water supply was principally due to the lack of corrosion control treatment and that EPA region five staff members first expressed concerns about the lack of corrosion control back in May.

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“That means the emergency order was issued at a minimum of seven months after the EPA’s concern was first communicated to the state,” he said, pointing out that under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA only has to wait 30 days before taking enforcement action of its own.

"If your agency’s own policy document encourages judicial action when a situation is escalating, why did the EPA wait so long to take action in Flint?” he asked Susan Shinkman, the director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement, during the hearing held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management.

Though Shinkman said it was the primary responsibility of the state to enforce it's safe-drinking-water laws, she admitted the agency could have done more.

“In this case, clearly there was a falling down on the appropriate measures,” she said. “The EPA regional office, region five, was monitoring what was going on with the state over a period of time. Obviously a significant amount of time passed in which perhaps other action should have been taken.”

When her office realized the situation needed emergency action, Shinkman said it issued an order that forces the state to take immediate action to improve the drinking water.

“We are monitoring that order on a daily, almost hourly basis to make sure that we try to bring the city back into compliance and improve the drinking water in the city of Flint,” she said.

If the state fails to meet the requirements of the order, she said, the EPA plans to follow-up with additional enforcement actions that are “possibly judicial.”