The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief told reporters the agency “did its job” when asked how the Obama administration handled the ongoing water crisis in the city of Flint, Mich.
“EPA did its job but clearly the outcome was not what anyone would have wanted,” Gina McCarthy told reporters while at an event at a D.C. soup kitchen showing how to reduce food waste.
McCarthy’s remarks come after news that agency officials knew there was lead in Flint’s water at least six months before state regulators admitted in October to using the wrong standards for keeping lead pollution out of drinking water.
“So we’re going to work with the state, we’re going to work with Flint,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to take care of the problem. We know Flint is a situation that never should have happened.”
But the EPA spent months quietly warning state regulators of the lack of corrosion controls for Flint’s water supplies. The EPA told the state it needed to use chemical treatments to prevent lead lines and plumbing from getting into Flint’s drinking water, but the agency did nothing to publicize its concerns over the city’s water despite the state’s refusal to control against lead poisoning.
The Detroit News reported that EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman said “she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action, but it wasn’t completed until November.”
“There is a legitimate concern about EPA’s performance in terms of alerting the public,” said Democratic state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich told The Detroit News. “And frankly, as a member of Congress, I want to know when there’s the potential of a health crisis in my district.”
The financially-distressed city of Flint decided to save money by switching where it got its drinking water from nearly two years ago. The city decided to get its drinking water from a local river instead of from Lake Huron, but state regulators didn’t use the right standards when controlling for corrosion — meaning lead could get into Flint’s drinking water.
EPA officials knew as early as April 2015 that state regulators were not using the correct standards for preventing lead contamination, but instead of publicizing the news the agency quietly prodded state regulators and waited on a legal opinion that did come for months.
It wasn’t until October that state officials admitted to not using the correct testing procedures for monitoring drinking water quality in Flint. Since then, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and President Barack Obama have declared states of emergency over Flint’s water crisis.
The head of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality resigned in December after a state task force lambasted his agency’s handling of Flint’s water.
“We believe the primary responsibility for what happened in Flint rests with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ),” the state task force wrote to Snyder in December.
“Although many individuals and entities at state and local levels contributed to creating and prolonging the problem, MDEQ is the government agency that has responsibility to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan,” the task force wrote. “It failed in that responsibility and must be held accountable for that failure.”
McCarthy said EPA has also established a task force that’s conducting an audit of how Michigan regulators handled the water crisis. She said the task force will “make sure whatever improvements need to be made get made and get done quickly.”
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