Watchdog: EPA was too slow to act on Flint

Watchdog: EPA was too slow to act on Flint
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The Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog is faulting the agency for not acting sooner than it did on the drinking water lead contamination crisis in Flint, Mich.

A report from EPA’s inspector general Thursday found that the agency’s regional office in Chicago had both the information and legal authority to issue an federal emergency order to improve Flint’s water in June 2015, seven months before the agency did issue such an order.


The finding supports criticisms from lawmakers and local Michigan officials who have maintained that the EPA should have acted much sooner to order actions to reduce Flint residents’ exposure to lead.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthyRegina (Gina) McCarthyOvernight Energy: Critics accuse Interior's top lawyer of misleading Congress | Boaty McBoatface makes key climate change discovery | Outrage over Trump's order to trim science advisory panels Trump's order to trim science advisory panels sparks outrage Overnight Energy: Trump order to trim science panels sparks outrage | Greens ask watchdog to investigate Interior's records policies | EPA to allow use of pesticide harmful to bees MORE has consistently defended her agency’s handling of the case. She has maintained that the EPA did what it was required to do legally, though she conceded that it could have done more.

“These situations should generate a greater sense of urgency,” Inspector General Arthur Elkins said in a statement accompanying the “management alert” his office issued, recommending the EPA rewrites its guidance on emergency orders to clarify they need to happen quickly.

“Federal law provides the EPA with emergency authority to intervene when the safety of drinking water is compromised,” he said. “Employees must be knowledgeable, trained and ready to act when such a public health threat looms.”

Such emergency orders can mandate that a state or water utility take immediate steps to reduce exposure to contaminants.

The main responsible party for issuing the order was Susan Hedman, who was the regional EPA administrator at the time. She stepped down Jan. 21, the same day that McCarthy issued the emergency order for Flint.

The Thursday report does not say that anyone at the EPA broke the law. Instead, it argues that the EPA had ample evidence that Flint residents were being harmed by lead exposure in drinking water — from tests, complaints and other sources — and state and local authorities weren’t doing what they had to do.

“Emergency action by EPA Region 5 could have required the city and state to provide alternative water supplies to affected residents, study the extent and severity of lead contamination within the water system, or immediately begin corrective actions to reduce and eliminate lead contamination in the drinking water system,” the report said. “However, EPA Region 5 did not intervene under [Safe Drinking Water Act] Section 1431 to require immediate actions to protect human health, and the conditions in Flint continued.”

EPA spokeswoman Monica Lee defended the agency against the inspector general’s characterization that it didn’t act quickly enough.

“EPA issued an order to the City of Flint and the State of Michigan as soon as it became apparent that the city and state were failing to address the serious problems with the Flint drinking water system,” she said in a statement.

Lee added that the EPA agrees with the report’s recommendation for better training and guidance so officials understand the need for emergency orders on water contamination, and it has implemented much of what the report suggested.

McCarthy told the House Oversight Committee in March that she wished she and her staff could have done more on Flint.

“If there was anything I could have done, any switch that I could have turned on, that would have allowed us to go further than what was happening at that time, I would have pulled that switch,” she said.

The inspector general report is only an interim finding as part of a wider investigation into the Flint crisis.

The crisis started in April 2014, when an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) switched Flint’s water supply to save money.

The new water supply did not have the correct additives to prevent lead pipe corrosion, and state workers repeatedly chose not to require the additives.

—Updated at 4:50 p.m.