EPA Too Slow to Act on Flint, Inspector General Says

A recently released report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Inspector General details the agency’s lack of swift action in initially communicating the water crisis in Flint, Mich., to the public in 2015. flint-tower

The report, issued by EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr., maintains that EPA officials had enough information and authority to issue an emergency order under the Safe Drinking Water Act as early as June 2015. At that time, officials knew that “systems designed to protect Flint drinking water from lead contamination were not in place, residents had reported multiple abnormalities in the water, and test results from some homes showed lead levels above the federal action level,” the report states.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has accepted his share of blame for the contamination of Flint’s water, but has said he also believes officials on the local and federal levels were partly responsible.

The report delves into EPA Region 5’s reasoning for not issuing an emergency order, a move Elkins says was ultimately wrong:

“EPA Region 5 did not issue an emergency order because the region concluded the state’s actions were a jurisdictional bar preventing the EPA from issuing a SDWA Section 1431 emergency order. However, the EPA’s 1991 guidance on SDWA Section 1431 orders states that if state actions are deemed insufficient, the EPA can and should proceed with a SDWA Section 1431 order, and the EPA may use its emergency authority if state action is not protecting the public in a timely manner. However, EPA Region 5 did not intervene under SDWA Section 1431, the conditions in Flint persisted, and the state continued to delay taking action to require corrosion control or provide alternative drinking water supplies.”

Flint’s drinking water supply was first contaminated with lead starting in April 2014 when the city, while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched the source of supply from Lake Huron water supplied by the City of Detroit to Flint River water treated at Flint’s city treatment plant. Officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have since acknowledged they made a mistake when they failed to require the needed corrosion control chemicals to be added to the water.

As a result, lead leached from pipes and fixtures into the drinking water. Although the city switched back to Detroit water in October 2015, officials say the potential for harm continues because of damage done to Flint’s water distribution infrastructure.

Thus far, nine low-level or mid-level government officials have been criminally charged as part of the state investigation into the contamination, including three employees of Michigan’s DEQ and three state health department workers. The water contamination in Flint has been tied to lead poisoning in children and the deaths of 12 people from Legionnaires’ disease.

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