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REPORT: EPA Delayed Helping Flint Fix Lead-Tainted Water

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Michael Bastasch Energy Editor

EPA had the legal authority to intervene in the Flint, Mich., water crisis months months before it actually did, according to a report by the agency’s inspector general.

EPA IG Arthur Elkins said, “the EPA’s Region 5 had the authority and sufficient information to issue an emergency order to protect Flint residents from lead-contaminated water” under the Safe Drinking Water Act as early as June 2015.

“However, we found that EPA’s Region 5 did not issue an emergency order because the region saw the state’s actions as a jurisdictional bar,” Elkins said in a podcast, summarizing his investigation into EPA’s handling of the Flint water crisis. “In other words, people at the federal agency believed they were unable to do anything because the state was already taking action.”

The IG’s report found EPA could have intervened to ameliorate Flint’s water problems months before. The IG’s office said the agency can intervene “if the state action is not protecting the public from the contaminants in a timely fashion.”

Michigan officials admitted the problem in November 2015 after months of denying anything was wrong with Flint’s water. EPA officials had known for months Flint’s water had elevated lead levels before state officials admitted any wrongdoing.

EPA issued an emergency order over Flint’s water in January 2016 — but only after news reports came out showing EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman downplayed findings that Flint’s water was tainted.

Flint’s water problems started in 2014 when the city switched over to getting its water from the Flint River. State officials, however, applied the wrong chemical treatment to the water, which caused lead pipes to corrode and taint the water supply.

Environmentalists have pointed to Flint as an example of environmental injustice, and so far eight state employees have been charged by Michigan authorities in connection to the crisis. The NAACP has sued Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder over the incident.

The EPA IG’s findings reflect those of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force from earlier this year. The task force criticized EPA for not acting fast enough to fix the problem.

“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 task force found.

“The EPA’s own 1991 guidance clarifies that if state actions are deemed insufficient, the agency can and should proceed with a Section 1431 order,” the EPA IG’s recent report found. “The EPA guidance also clarifies that the agency may use its emergency authority even when a state is acting, if the state action is not protecting the public from the contaminants in a timely fashion.”

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