Watchdog Says Lack of EPA Oversight Helped Cause ‘Catastrophic’ Flint Water Crisis

A report from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General strongly criticizes the local, state and federal government’s response to the Flint water crisis in 2015 and 2016.

The report claims that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed to comply with two Lead and Copper Rule requirements, and that the EPA issued an emergency order seven months after it had the “authority and sufficient information” to do so, according to a news release from the EPA OIG’s office.

“While oversight authority is vital, its absence can contribute to a catastrophic situation,” EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins said in a news release. “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.”

An ineffective partnership

The report faults both the state and local governments for their handling of the crisis individually, but the partnership between the two also played a large role in the delayed response to Flint, according to the report.

As early as 2010, the EPA knew that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s water standards were not in proper standing. In 2010, an EPA contractor reviewed the MDEQ’s drinking water program and flagged 10 requirements from the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA) that they were not following at the time.

Instead of addressing these problems, the MDEQ continued not to meet those standards and stopped meeting another standard in the SWDA by 2015.

“The region was making a strong effort to have a partnership with the state,” said Katie Butler, the director for water program evaluations at the EPA Office of the Inspector General. “This is a case where that partnership relationship did not serve the people of Flint specifically.”

While federal law does not require a state government to inform the federal government when a water supply switch has occurred, the investigation revealed that EPA’s Region 5 office knew about the change in Flint’s water supply when the switch was made in 2014.

“We believe that this was predominantly a management issue at the regional level,” Butler said. “The combination of pieces of information should have given them a hint that something serious was happening in Flint.”

Instead of stepping in to take action when multiple warning signs emerged, the EPA regional office continued to defer to the state, until the crisis had already spread throughout Flint.

87 complaints

The report found that 87 citizen complaints, 30 of them about lead, were filed with the EPA before the agency issued an emergency order in January 2016. The first citizen complaint was filed in May 2014.

When investigators asked the EPA’s Region 5 staff about the citizen complaints, they responded, “Generally, there is little or no correlation between citizen complaints about water and lead content,” according to the report. They also stated that citizens often complain about “aesthetic concerns” that have nothing to do with lead levels. Eleven of the complaints still have not received a response, according to the report.

One of the report’s recommendations asks the agency to create a system to assess and triage citizen complaints, according to Butler.

A step forward

Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents Flint’s district, said the report is one step forward for Flint families who have been affected by the crisis. Kildee led the passage of legislation that now requires the EPA to notify the public after it learns of high lead levels.

“The Flint water crisis was a failure of all levels of government,” Kildee said in a statement. “Justice for Flint families comes in many forms, and the release of this report is one form of holding those responsible accountable.”

Kildee is trying to pass the NO LEAD Act in Congress, which would require the EPA to update its Lead and Copper Rule. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher and one of the people who discovered high lead levels in Flint, also acknowledged more work needs to be done.

“Until the LCR [Lead and Copper Rule] is revised and the well-known loopholes fixed, too many Americans will continue to falsely believe their water has acceptable lead risks,” Edwards said.

The report recommends that EPA headquarters revise the Lead and Copper Rule. This is the only recommendation in the report that remains unresolved as of the report’s release.

Delayed response sparks investigation

The EPA OIG’s office announced it would audit the agency’s handling of the crisis in January 2016 when the agency issued an emergency order criticizing Michigan state and local government’s handling of the crisis and ordering specific actions be taken to address the public health threat, according to an EPA report.

But the EPA’s emergency order announcing that it would help with the crisis on January 21, 2016, came seven months after an EPA staffer wrote a memo expressing concern about the water in Flint and 11 months after an EPA official first expressed concern about high levels of lead in a woman’s Flint home, according to emails released by the state of Michigan.

After being contacted by Flint resident LeeAnn Walters, the EPA connected Walters with scientist Miguel Del Toral. He began investigating the water circumstances in Flint and wrote a memo highlighting preliminary findings of “serious concerns for residents” and “violations” of federal regulations that he sent to EPA’s Region 5 Director Susan Hedman.

A month after the EPA issued an emergency order at the beginning of 2016, Hedman resigned from her post.

Obama’s EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and Hedman both denied any wrongdoing when testifying in front of Congress about the administration’s handling of the crisis in 2016.

The crisis

Flint’s water contamination problems stemmed from the local government’s decision to join a local coalition of governments in taking water from a new pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint in order to reduce water costs. While that pipeline was under construction, the city turned to the Flint River as a water source in 2014. Soon after the switch, residents started noticing issues with the water.

It was the state government’s decision to switch the water source. After the town declared a financial state of emergency in 2011, the state government took budgetary control.

Residents thought the color and smell of the water was caused by sewage, but it was actually lead. The Flint River is highly corrosive: 19 times more so than the Lake Huron supply, according to researchers from Virginia Tech.

The Michigan State Department of Environmental Quality wasn’t treating the Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agent, in violation of federal law, according to a class action lawsuit. This caused the water to erode the iron water mains, which turned the water color brown.

But because half of the service lines to Flint homes were made of lead and the water wasn’t being properly treated, lead began leaching into the water supply as well.

Tests taken in 2015 by the EPA and Virginia Tech indicated dangerous levels of lead in the water at Flint residents’ homes.