EPA watchdog faults ‘management weaknesses’ in Flint water crisis

EPA watchdog faults ‘management weaknesses’ in Flint water crisis
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The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) internal watchdog office is faulting officials at the federal, state and local levels for the run-up and response to the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis.

In a comprehensive, 74-page report on how lead contaminated the drinking water in the city of 100,000, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins said local and state officials didn’t sufficiently protect the city water against lead, while the EPA didn’t have the right structures in place to monitor compliance and enforce the federal protections, among other factors that contributed to the crisis.

“While oversight authority is vital, its absence can contribute to a catastrophic situation,” Elkins said in a statement Thursday upon rolling out the findings.

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“This report urges the EPA to strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs now so that the agency can act quickly in times of emergency.”

The lead crisis began in April 2014 when Flint, at the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its water source to the Flint River, from buying treated water from Detroit, to save money.

The city never implemented the proper water treatment to stop the corrosive water from breaking down old lead pipes. Within months, thousands of the city’s residents were exposed to lead, coliform bacteria and other contaminants, leading to 12 deaths and one of the worst public health crises in United States history.

The report from EPA’s Office of the Inspector General confirmed many previous findings about the crisis and about officials at various levels who ignored warnings.

For example, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), which has been granted authority to enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act in the state, found in January 2015 that Flint’s water was in the 90th percentile for lead contamination, but did not require Flint to change its corrosion control methods.

Later that year, more testing found similar high lead levels, and MDEQ did not act, the OIG said.

But the EPA also shared significant blame, the watchdog report found.

EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago got the first citizen complaint about lead in Flint in May 2014, a month after the water source switch.

But due to factors like the failure of EPA and the state to sort out their oversight responsibilities effectively, the EPA didn’t take any concrete action until January 2016.

EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said in a statement that the agency agrees with the findings and the recommendations from the watchdog report.

“The Office of Water, Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, and Region 5 have already taken steps to implement several of those recommendations and will continue to expeditiously adopt the rest,” she said. “The agency is actively engaging with states to improve communications and compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to safeguard human health.”

Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEnvironmentalists renew bid to overturn EPA policy barring scientists from advisory panels Six states sue EPA over pesticide tied to brain damage Overnight Energy: Trump EPA looks to change air pollution permit process | GOP senators propose easing Obama water rule | Green group sues EPA over lead dust rules MORE, who was the EPA’s administrator until earlier this year, often cited the Flint water crisis as a failure of the EPA under former President Obama and a reason why he is not an “environmental savior.”

Flint switched back to Detroit water in early 2015. Flint's lead levels have since fallen below EPA's action level, but the process of replacing the city's water pipes is likely to take years.