While much of the finger pointing surrounding the Flint water crisis targets local and state officials in Michigan, the federal government was far from blameless. And now, a new report from within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) details the extent of its culpability.
Yesterday (July 19), Arthur A. Elkins, inspector general for the EPA, released a 74-page report based on the agency’s response and actions related to the crisis. The Office of Inspector General is an independent office within the EPA that is charged with helping the agency operate effectively. In its report, the office stressed that the EPA was passive in its efforts to remedy the problem, and said that it must strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs to prevent another Flint.
Per The Washington Post:
The EPA’s inspector general found that the federal government deserved significant blame for not more quickly using its enforcement authority to make sure state and local officials were complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as with federal rules that mandate testing for lead.
As a result of the slow response, the people of Flint were using and drinking lead-tainted water for an extended amount of time. The report stated, “while Flint residents were being exposed to lead in drinking water, the federal response was delayed, in part, because the EPA did not establish clear roles and responsibilities, risk assessment procedures, effective communication and proactive oversight tools.”
In a statement that accompanied the release of the report, Elkins acknowledged that the EPA’s absence of authority contributed to a “catastrophic situation.” Specifically, the report faulted the EPA’s regional office in Michigan, saying it “did not manage its drinking water oversight program in a way that facilitated effective oversight and timely intervention.” In addition, staffers “lacked a sense of urgency.” According to U.S. News & World Report:
After tests showed high levels of lead in a home in April 2015, Miguel Del Toral, a water regulations official in EPA’s Chicago office, contacted officials with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. Del Toral also alerted superiors at EPA who decided not to make the information public, instead prodding the state agency to act behind the scenes. After a draft of Del Toral’s report was leaked, EPA’s regional administrator apologized to the city.
Flint is a majority Black city of approximately 100,000 residents. In April 2014, the city’s water source was switched from the Great Lakes Water Authority to the Flint River. The switch led to a rise in lead levels for residents and 12 fatal cases of Legionnaires’ disease. There was also a decrease in fertility and an increase in infant deaths as a result of the lead.
For over a year and beginning soon after the switch was made to the Flint River, residents complained that the water had a smell and was causing rashes, yet they were ignored by officials. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is responsible for these complaints finally being heard and acted upon. She is a pediatrician, and in 2015, Dr. Hanna-Attisha tested blood lead levels in her young patients after being notified by a friend of possible lead in Flint’s water supply. She discovered many of Flint children’s blood lead levels had doubled or tripled.
In an interview with The Washington Post about the new EPA report, Dr. Hanna-Attisha said, “EPA needs to learn from Flint and this report. All of the EPA lead standards are grossly inadequate and need to be updated to respect the science of ‘no safe level’ of lead exposure. Only then will we as a nation be able to fully protect the potential of our children from this preventable neurotoxin.”
The report offers nine recommendations. These include instituting controls to guarantee that states and municipal governments comply with federal lead testing regulations and methods for treating water sources. The inspector general also urged the EPA to meet its 2019 target date to update the Lead and Copper Rule, which mandates how communities monitor drinking water for lead.
The agency told The Post that it agrees with the findings and has begun implementing the recommendations. Meanwhile, the city is still working to replace all of its lead and galvanized steel pipes, many of which leached lead when water from the Flint River flowed through them. Residents continue to use filtered or bottled water for most activities.