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What Did the EPA Do Wrong in Flint?

The city and state are taking heat from the national media, but what was the federal government’s role in the disaster?

Saginaw Street in Flint, 2011   Photo: Tony Faiola/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

Late Thursday, Susan Hedman, the head of the EPA’s Midwest region, which includes Chicago, became the most prominent official to resign during the ongoing Flint water crisis. Prior to that, it had mostly been Michigan officials who had stepped down in the face of national criticism.

Where did the EPA go wrong? 

“About 1980,” says Henry Henderson, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Midwest Program.

Wait, what?

“There’s been a movement for a very long time to limit the role of the federal government to enforce equal protection,” Henderson says. “Federal agencies defer to other levels of government; opponents of the federal government have tried to stigmatize it.”

Indeed, the Tribune reported Saturday that the last Chicago-based EPA official to lose her post had been ousted for being too aggressive in addressing pollution in Michigan.

To understand how an ongoing hostility towards the role of the Environmental Protection Agency dating back to Ronald Reagan’s first term could have played a role in the Flint crisis, it helps to understand the timeline, which begins well before the flood of national attention in recent weeks.

In April 2014, to save the struggling city money, Flint stopped buying Lake Huron water from Detroit and switched its source to the Flint River. As Flint native Stephen Rodrick writes in Rolling Stone, the river is notoriously polluted, and there was already reason to be skeptical of the city’s decision. In October, a GM plant in Flint stopped using the city’s water because it was corroding their parts.

“So while the state was saying the water was still safe to drink, GM was saying it wasn’t safe to be used on car pistons,” Rodrick writes.

About a year after Flint began using river water, a friend of mine in Flint started to hear rumors about lead in the water, and he switched to bottled water for his young daughters. Nothing had been proven yet, and in July of 2015, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality reassured residents about lead levels.

But that March, around the time my friend started hearing the rumors, a Flint mother named LeeAnne Walters finally reached the breaking point on her family’s health problems—rashes, abdominal pains, hair falling out, all problems that started in the summer of 2014—and became convinced her water was responsible, as Julia Lurie details in a new Mother Jones profile.

Others had suffered problems, but it was Walters who got in touch with Miguel Del Toral, an EPA manager based in Chicago. In June 2015, Del Toral wrote an internal memo about Flint’s issues that leaked in July to the Michigan branch of the ACLU. Del Toral told the ACLU that Flint was “exploiting a ‘loophole’ in the law,” testing water only after residents had “pre-flushed” the pipes by letting the water run for minutes before testing. Which, of course, is not something people do unless they have reason to.

“The practice of pre-flushing before collecting compliance samples has been shown to result in the minimization of lead capture and significant underestimation of lead levels in drinking water,” Del Toral wrote.

But after the memo leaked, a spokesman for the DEQ told Michigan Radio “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.” In July, the EPA told the mayor of Flint that it would be “premature to draw any conclusions” based on the memo.

So in the middle of last year, an EPA manager, as well as Virginia Tech scientist and MacArthur “genius" grant winner Marc Edwards, were aware that the problem could be much more severe than the DEQ or the city was saying. Del Toral even breached protocol to speak to the ACLU because of his concern.

And then…nothing. As Rebecca Leber writes in The New Republic:

For the next six months, the agency was in a dispute with Michigan officials over how it interpreted water treatment under the 25-year-old EPA regulation on lead and copper.

But the EPA’s public position throughout was that Flint’s water remained within a safe range, even as they privately pressured state officials to do more. It wasn’t until last November, shortly after Michigan began acknowledging problems, that the EPA aired Del Toral’s initial concerns publicly.

On October 1, 2015, the NRDC and a host of others—including Walters, Edwards, and the Michigan ACLU—filed an emergency petition to the EPA.

“Instead of waiting for the National Guard to bring in water, they could have ordered it immediately. They could have sought to put corrosion controls in place,” Henderson says of the agency. "The administration has authority to take emergency action when there is an imminent threat. We had manifest exposure to a neurotoxin.”

Henderson is referring to Section 1431 of the Safe Water Drinking Act, which “provides that, upon receipt of information that a contaminant that is present in or likely to enter a public water system or an underground source of drinking water … the EPA Administrator may take any action she deems necessary to protect human health.”

But it continues: “The Administrator may take action under this section only if the state and local authorities have not acted to protect the health of persons. Then, to the extent the Administrator deems practicable in light of the imminent and substantial endangerment, she must consult with the state and local authorities to confirm the factual situation and any action the state or local authorities are or will be taking.”

The EPA’s Hedman responded to the petition in December, after the city and state had taken several steps to improve the city’s water, arguing that “in light of the actions that the State and City have taken during the past several weeks, EPA could arguably conclude that your petition fails to meet the jurisdictional prerequisites set forth in Section 1431…. However, EPA has instead decided to defer action on the petition until such time as the Agency determines that corrosion control treatment is fully optimized for the Flint system.”

Yesterday, the day Hedman resigned, the EPA released an emergency order under Section 1431.

But Henderson thinks the problems go much deeper and farther back. “I think [the EPA] has been beaten down, internalizing a sense of powerlessness. There’s an astonishing lack of urgency. It’s a failure of nerve,” he says. “Flint was so critically important in creating the 20th century. To treat it like a backwater—it’s not a great American story.”

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