Energy & Environment

EPA under fire over Flint


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under fire for its handling of the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich.

Michigan and its Department of Environmental Qualilty (DEQ) have the primary responsibility to keep Flint’s drinking water safe and free of lead. But critics say the federal agency is asleep at the wheel, not doing enough and not acting quickly to stop the problem from growing out of control.

Flint’s lead problems also hit the national spotlight while EPA was still defending itself from the toxic mine waste spill it caused in Colorado in August, another embarrassment for the agency.

{mosads}The controversy and continued finger-pointing over Flint at all levels of government have put the EPA on the defensive, spurring officials to go out of their way to show that they can handle their responsibilities.

Days after EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy defended the agency on Jan. 18, saying it “did its job,” Susan Hedman, the agency’s regional official in charge of the Great Lakes area, resigned. The EPA also rolled out a suite of new actions against Flint and Michigan, including tests and an order to immediately fix problems.

But the mess is also bringing attention to the essential problems that can grow from the U.S. model for pollution control, in which the EPA cedes authority to enforce laws to state agencies, while maintaining responsibility for overseeing the state officials.

“It seems they were very slow in revealing information to the public, and they seem to have had some … ethical obligation to probably say more, even on a preliminary basis,” said David Konisky, an environmental policy professor at Indiana University Bloomington. He added that it’s unlikely the EPA broke the law.

“This reflects a bit of a structural flaw in our environmental protection system, where the EPA delegates its authority to implement these pollution control statutes to the state level, and states have very different attitudes, preferences and agency designs to implement these programs,” he added.

Flint switched to using water from the Flint River in April 2014 as a money-saving measure while the city was being overseen by an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R).

The city quickly started facing water quality problems, which the state repeatedly downplayed. But the lead problem arose because the city did not use the proper water treatment to prevent old lead pipes from corroding, leading to the potential poisoning of the city’s 100,000 residents.

Early in 2015, Miguel Del Toral, an EPA water regulation officer, started to tell Hedman and others about the lead problems, and he sent a formal draft memo in June that was leaked to the press.

Hedmen quickly and repeatedly pressed state officials to take action. But she did not go public with the findings or take action herself, instead seeking a legal opinion on the matter that was not finished until November, according to the Detroit News.

Now, legislation from Michigan’s Democratic Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow and Rep. Dan Kildee would require public disclosure of such findings if the state does not act.

“The people have a right to know, and we’re going to clarify that in this amendment,” Peters told reporters recently.

The EPA’s critics are eager to bring to light the agency’s failings in Flint.

“It appears as if this crisis was caused by a failure of management at the local, state, and federal level,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.

The House Oversight Committee is holding a Feb. 3 hearing focused on the EPA’s role in the matter, where it will hear from Del Toral and from Joel Beauvais, the agency’s top official for water, as well as state representatives.

Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), in a letter to McCarthy about his investigation, said Hedman’s resignation “raises serious questions about EPA’s response to the Flint crisis.”

Chaffetz previously probed Hedman for allegedly retaliating against employees investigating sexual harassment.

Snyder also hired crisis communications firm Mercury to point journalists toward coverage critical of the federal government’s actions in Flint.

But the EPA said it has done what’s required under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the failings are the responsibility of others.

“Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the state of Michigan was responsible for implementing the regulations to protect their residents’ drinking water,” an EPA spokeswoman said.

“While EPA worked within the framework of the law to repeatedly and urgently communicate the steps the state needed to take to properly treat its water, those necessary actions were not taken as quickly as they should have been.”

Following Hedman’s resignation, the EPA ordered the city and state to immediately remedy the problem, and implemented a testing program of its own. It also sent an agency-wide memo urging staff to come forward with public health concerns that aren’t being remedied.

Democrats are taking the EPA’s side in the finger-pointing.

“The EPA warned and was regularly communicating with the state of Michigan. The state of Michigan dropped the ball,” said Peters.

“The main thing to understand is this is a state responsibility,” said Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.), the top Democrat on the appropriations panel in charge of the EPA’s funding.

“Only when you have a crisis, a complete failure on the part of the state, does EPA actually step in … I think the governor should step up to the plate and offer a solution.”

Stabenow also laid some blame on Republicans.

“The House dramatically cut the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund. We were able, in the Senate, to get that back up, although it was still a cut,” she said.

Konisky, though, predicted that the investigations into the EPA’s handling of Flint will show what many others have: the agency should do more to police states’ enforcement of laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

“The agency is aware of it and has over time tried to make some corrections, but it’s a pretty challenging problem, giving the limited resources of the EPA and the fact that states want to run these programs themselves,” he said.

Tags Debbie Stabenow Flint water crisis Gina McCarthy Jason Chaffetz Safe Drinking Water Act Tom Udall United States Environmental Protection Agency Water supply and sanitation in the United States

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