EPA Blames Itself For Flint Water Crisis

Just some of the people the EPA let down.
Just some of the people the EPA let down.
Photo: AP

On Thursday, more than four years after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan began, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a final report pointing blame right back at the EPA, as well as the state and city.

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None of this comes as surprise. In 2016, the OIG issued a report that concluded quite similarly: The EPA should’ve and could’ve done more sooner to protect the people of Flint. This latest report, however, provides much more detail on how various agencies failed the city and lots of suggestions on how they can be better next time.

Flint’s water system wasn’t meeting the standards required under the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which falls under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). That rule requires the state to keep track of where lead service lines are in order to sample the water for lead (a nationwide problem, the EPA found), as well as using appropriate corrosion control measures to prevent pipes from leaching lead into the water.

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What’s perhaps the most depressing thing to come out of this report is that the EPA knew as early as 2010 that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was slacking on its implementation of the SDWA. The department had stopped issuing violations for any water system throughout the state that reported water monitoring results late and/or wasn’t providing information on lead service line locations.

And yet until Flint’s water made national headlines toward the end of 2015, the EPA did nothing, despite complaints from Flint residents about the water quality beginning in May 2014.

“Generally, there is little or no correlation between citizen complaints about water and lead content,” Region 5 staff wrote in the report.

Well, they sure as hell were wrong. An emergency order on the situation didn’t come until January 2016.

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Fingers have pointed in all directions in terms of who’s to blame for the lead. In addition to the EPA and Michigan’s DEQ, there’s Governor Rick Snyder, who’s seen no repercussions. Now, the time has come to stop finger pointing and find solutions.

From the OIG’s perspective, it’s pretty simple: Everybody, get your shit together. In the office’s own words, “We recommend that EPA headquarters and EPA Region 5 use lessons learned from Flint to improve its oversight of Safe Drinking Water Act compliance.”

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The EPA needs to be more clear on agency roles and responsibilities so individuals know how to take action next time a state isn’t following the law. It also needs to make sure staff know the ins and outs of the SDWA because apparently there was disagreement on what was required under the act during the Flint water crisis. That means maintaining clear communication with the DEQ so that everyone’s on the same page.

The agency also needs to keep better track of citizen complaints. If a lot of people are complaining about one thing, well, maybe that’s a red flag.

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Lead is an issue throughout the country. Flint’s horrible situation reminded us of that. And it goes on. Until residents feel safe to drink from their faucets, the crisis ain’t over.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

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Come on Yessenia, read the actual damn report - not just the EPA website summary of the executive summary. It’s an excellent breakdown of what happened and why US EPA headquarters and region shouldn’t have given Michigan primacy on water, given what they know now about it being a fucking shithole of a state.

Here’s the findings from the white paper as executive summary of the entire report:

The EPA: The agency retains oversight and enforcement authorities to provide assurance that states with primacy comply with Safe Drinking Water Act requirements, such as those in the Lead and Copper Rule. However, Region 5 did not implement management controls that could have facilitated more informed and proactive decision-making when Flint and the MDEQ did not properly implement the Lead and Copper Rule. 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.

This report is not going to put the blame back on Flint, where it squarely belongs, because the purpose of this report is to figure out how the US EPA headquarters (DC) and region (great lakes) failed at delegation and management of a state primacy system.

Put it this way, it’s like Maddie blaming herself for giving her writers editorial authority on Earther content and the content is poorly researched and drawn. Ultimately she would be correct to blame herself, since she is managing editor and her major responsibility is to hire competent young writers.