EPA Accused of Inaction as Michigan Water Crisis Loomed

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Critics say federal authorities should have taken action sooner in the Flint water crisis.

As the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Mich., continues unfolding, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been accused of failing to take action early enough.

The absence of controls against corrosion after Flint in 2014 switched water sources from the Detroit system to the Flint River was known to federal regulators as early as last February, according to a Jan. 12 story broken by the Detroit News. An EPA expert in Region 5 based near the Great Lakes -- Miguel Del Toral -- confirmed the suspicions in April and summarized the looming problem in a June internal memo.

But his supervisor, Susan Hedman, said she couldn’t act without agreement from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which was completing more testing of the water supply to the cash-strapped city.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Monday defended the federal government's response, Reuters reported. ”EPA did its job but clearly the outcome was not what anyone would have wanted,” she told reporters while visiting a Washington soup kitchen. “So we're going to work with the state, we're going to work with Flint. We're going to take care of the problem. We know Flint is a situation that never should have happened."

EPA did not respond to Government Executive’s requests for comment by publication time. 

National Guard troops have been called in to distribute clean water, and President Obama has declared Flint an emergency. Some 100,000 Flint residents are without water, and lawsuits have been filed. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who is expected to address the crisis during his Tuesday night State of the State address, has acknowledged that his handling of the water contamination is his “Katrina.”

The EPA, in its defense, also noted that back in October it had named a task force of scientists and technical experts to give advice on the Flint situation, with a liaison to the city and the state environmental department. The federal agency also sought a legal opinion on its authority to act on its own, but Hedman told the Detroit News the federal role is to set standards and provide technical assistance while the onus for acting rests with the state.

In November, EPA’s Region 5 announced that it would audit the Michigan DEQ’s drinking water program and examine its implementation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. “This comprehensive audit will provide Flint residents and the people of Michigan with more information about MDEQ oversight of public water supplies and will identify actions that may be needed to strengthen the Michigan drinking water program,” Hedman said in a release. The audit, expected to take several months, included examination of the state agency’s files on water system compliance.

The internal EPA memos surfaced after a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and a Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, according to the Detroit News.

Hedman, appointed by Obama in 2010, chairs a Great Lakes Regional Working Group (composed of the 16 federal agencies that work together to implement the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative), according to the EPA website. She also co-chairs the binational Great Lakes Executive Committee with federal, state, provincial, tribal and local governments that work together on Great Lakes water quality. She has a law degree as well as a doctorate in environmental studies.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who represents the Flint area, told reporters he agrees the EPA bears some responsibility for alerting the public, but said the greater share of blame rests with the state agency.

Charles S. Clark is a Senior Correspondent for Government Executive.

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