The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Inspector General (IG) states the agency had both the authority and sufficient information to issue an emergency order to protect the residents of Flint, Michigan from drinking water contaminated by lead seven months before the agency finally acted, faulting the agency for not intervening sooner.
Although the July IG report concludes state and local officials also share responsibility for Flint’s drinking water fiasco, IG Arthur A. Elkins said the EPA’s slow reaction to the crisis under President Barack Obama needlessly worsened the problem.
“While oversight authority is vital, its absence can contribute to a catastrophic situation,” Elkins said in a press release accompanying the report. “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.”
Failure to Treat Water
Flint’s drinking water problems began in April 2014 when, to save money, the city switched water suppliers, changing its water supply from the Detroit River to the Flint River. On the advice of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Flint did not adequately treat the water. Like many other cities, Flint’s water flows through aging, leaking iron pipes that must be treated with chemicals to combat corrosion before it is passed to lead service pipes connected to residences.
This policy exposed Flint’s residents to high levels of lead, and the contaminated water was linked to 72 cases of Legionnaire’s disease, including 12 deaths.
The report faults DEQ for its decision to recommend against water treatment and for ignoring warning signs for 17 months the city’s water was becoming dangerously contaminated. It also points the finger at city officials for failing to maintain an inventory of lead water pipes, as required by the federal Lead and Copper Rule. The lack of an inventory prevented proper testing of the water and contributed, the report says, to DEQ’s mistaken assumption the city’s water met federal standards.
By spring 2015, EPA was aware of potential problems with Flint’s drinking water but took no action because officials in the agency’s Region 5 (Chicago) office said it was a state issue.
EPA Ignored Warnings
“The Flint water crisis demonstrates that public health is not protected when EPA regional staff—with multiple warning signs—do not use the agency’s [Safe Drinking Water] authorities in conjunction with EPA oversight tools,” the report says.
Saddled with high unemployment, Flint, a city of just under 100,000 people, has been mired in fiscal crisis for years. Flint was under a state-appointed emergency manager when the water disaster unfolded.
Eleven individuals, most of them state employees, are facing criminal charges resulting from an investigation by Michigan’s attorney general. EPA’s Obama-appointed director of Region 5 was forced to resign in the wake of the disaster.
The IG report makes several recommendations to improve the agency’s oversight, including expanded monitoring and corrosion-control treatment under the Lead and Copper Rule and creating a better risk-assessment system for state drinking water programs.
The administration of President Donald Trump is taking action to improve EPA’s drinking water oversight, says Craig Rucker, president of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.
“Providing safe drinking water is one of the most fundamental things to expect from government, particularly in a country as technologically advanced as the United States,” Rucker said. “The decrepit state of Flint’s underground water pipes, combined with a complete breakdown in communication among federal, state, and local officials, made the tragedy possible.
“The IG’s report also shows the Trump administration’s efforts to reform EPA are more than justified and should be continued,” said Rucker.
Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union, says increasing private-sector involvement in the treatment and provision of drinking water would improve its safety.
“Taxpayers face hundreds of billions—even trillions—of dollars in costs to replace, augment, and manage underground water infrastructure over the coming decades,” Sepp said. “Ensuring oversight for this process and avoiding future Flint-style crises must start with drinking and wastewater systems optimized for fiscal and environmental conditions in each community.
“That’s why reforms encouraging private-sector innovation, creating accountable management, and stressing open competition for materials are essential,” said Sepp.
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.
Office of the Inspector General, “Management Weaknesses Delayed Response to Flint Water Crisis,” The United States Environmental Protection Agency, July 19, 2018: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/management-weaknesses-delayed-response-to-flint-water-crisis