The task force appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to investigate what happened in Flint, Michigan has released a scathing 116-page report on how a failure of government at all levels allowed the city’s drinking water to become contaminated with elevated levels of lead.
In particular, the report slams the federal Environmental Protection Agency, claiming the agency was unlikely to enforce clean drinking water regulations in Flint in the absence of “widespread public outrage.”
“EPA failed to properly exercise its authority prior to January 2016. EPA’s conduct casts doubt on its willingness to aggressively pursue enforcement (in the absence of widespread public outrage),” the Flint Water Advisory Task Force found.
“EPA could have exercised its powers under Section 1414 and Section 1431 of the SDWA or under the LCR, 40 CFR 141.82(i),” the task force stated, referring to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and Lead and Copper Rule.
The scathing report comes after EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy blamed Flint’s lead problems on state regulators who prescribed the wrong chemical treatments to keep corrosive river water from leaching lead pipes after the city switched its water supply in 2014.
“The [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] slow-walked all the things that needed to be done to find out how to fix the problem,” McCarthy told Congress in a recent hearing, adding that EPA was “strong-armed” and “misled” about the magnitude of the crisis.
Media reports, however, noted EPA officials responsible for overseeing drinking water quality knew about the lead problems in Flint since at least April 2015, but the agency did nothing to notify the public. The agency also took no enforcement actions against Michigan regulators until January 2016.
In fact, House Republicans released an internal EPA memo in September from Debbie Baltazar, who heads up the EPA’s water division for Region 5, which said, “I’m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for.”
“At least without a better understanding of where all that money went,” Baltazar added.
EPA officials were hesitant to hand over money to Flint to ameliorate its lead problems because of Flint’s sordid financial history — the state-appointed emergency manager decided to switch water suppliers to save money after the city got itself into dire financial straits due to its generous public pensions.
Despite this, the state task force laid into EPA for deferring to Michigan regulators and not taking action until officials admitted to applying the wrong chemical treatments in November.
“EPA was hesitant and slow to insist on proper corrosion control measures in Flint. MDEQ misinformation notwithstanding, EPA’s deference to MDEQ, the state primacy agency, delayed appropriate intervention and remedial measures,” the Flint task force found in its new report.
The task force, however, laid most of the blame for Flint’s lead crisis at the feet of state regulators who improperly applied federal rules to the city’s water. Michigan regulators refused to listen to Flint residents or federal officials about lead problems for months.
“MDEQ bears primary responsibility for the water contamination in Flint,” the task force found.
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