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EPA Could Have Helped Flint Sooner

Federal officials could have issued an emergency order to protect Flint, Mich., residents from tainted drinking water more than a year ago, the EPA reported last week.

The EPA’s watchdog unit said in a report issued Thursday that federal officials knew as early as spring of 2015 that systems were not in place to protect Flint residents from lead in their drinking water. The EPA’s Region 5, however, did not issue an emergency order about the health crisis until Jan. 21.

“These situations should generate a greater sense of urgency,” said EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins in a prepared statement. “Federal law provides the EPA with emergency authority to intervene when the safety of drinking water is compromised. Employees must be knowledgeable, trained and ready to act when such a public health threat looms.”

Thursday’s report comes on the heels of several other setbacks for the environmental agency. Earlier this week, the EPA was admonished by a federal judge for failing to provide analyses of potential job losses when issuing clean air regulations, and in January the U.S. Supreme Court halted the implementation of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Earlier this month, the EPA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) compiled information about an EPA employee’s possible criminal culpability in the release of millions of gallons of toxic water from an abandoned mine in Colorado. In that case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado declined to prosecute.

In its Flint report, the OIG said the agency delayed announcing an emergency order for seven months because Region 5 officials believed efforts by the state of Michigan created a “jurisdictional bar” that prevented federal action under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The OIG report pointed out that the EPA had the authority to intervene as early as June 2015 if the agency deemed state actions inadequate.

“EPA Region 5 did not intervene … the conditions in Flint persisted, and the state continued to delay taking action to require corrosion control or provide alternative drinking water supplies,” the OIG said in a report summary.

The water crisis in Flint began to unfold after the city switched water sources from Detroit Water and Sewerage to the Flint River in April 2014. As early as February 2015, Flint residents were reporting odor and color problems with tap water, and test results showed the lead contamination exceeded federal standards, the report said.

The EPA began opening sites for bottled water and filter distribution in Flint in January of this year.

What occurred in Flint was the result of failures at all levels of government, according to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s press secretary, Anna Heaton.

“All levels of government working together is what will help move Flint forward,” Heaton told AMI Newswire. “State agencies have undergone culture changes and updated procedures to ensure that nothing like this will happen again in Michigan.

She described the recommendations of the OIG as a positive development resulting from Flint’s health crisis.

“It’s encouraging to see other agencies undergoing evaluations that can result in process improvements to help people in Michigan and across the nation,” Heaton said. “There is still potential for a crisis of this nature to occur in other states, and hopefully that can be prevented.”

The finding that the heath of Flint residents’ was put at risk for several months is “deeply troubling,” said Flint Mayor Karen Weaver.

“To this day, the people of Flint still cannot drink water straight from the tap without a filter to remove lead and other chemicals that could cause them harm,” Weaver said in a prepared statement Thursday. “In this country we have agencies and policies in place to help ensure the well-being and safety of men, women and children, yet they failed when it comes to the man-made disaster in Flint.”

The OIG investigation involves two tracks, the first of which is an administrative program evaluation, according to Corriece Gwynn of the OIG.

“The second is that OIG criminal investigators are participating in a federal investigation led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan, regarding potential criminal violations that may have led to the water crisis in Flint,” Gwynn said in an OIG podcast.

The OIG has also recommended that the EPA update a 25-year-old policy that outlines the EPA’s emergency authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as provide additional training to managers and staff involved with the water enforcement program.