Does The EPA Bear Responsibility For Flint?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

A forklift driver moves a pallet of water in a warehouse Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Flint, Mich. Area residents dealing with contaminated drinking water in Flint will be the recipients of the water, which they can pick up at fire stations throughout the city.

A blame game has erupted over the lead-ridden drinking water in Flint, Michigan. For weeks, residents, politicians, and observers across the country have been asking: Who is responsible for this public health catastrophe?

Politically, blame is polarized. Progressives have taken aim at Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who they say failed to recognize through his state environmental agency that Flint’s water was unsafe. Meanwhile, some conservatives have targeted the Democratic emergency manager of Flint, who they say was ultimately responsible for switching the city’s water supply to the highly suspect Flint River.

The most controversial culprit, however, is the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Long before the crisis erupted, an EPA employee sounded the alarm about a serious lead problem in Flint’s drinking water system. But his higher-ups declined to make that information public, and instead tried behind the scenes to get the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to take action to solve the problem.

Now, many insist the the EPA should have gone public with what it knew. “With a clear mission to protect human health and the environment, the EPA must be held to the same standard of accountability as state agencies,” the Detroit News wrote in a scathing editorial last week. Indeed, it seemed perplexing that the EPA would sit on troubling information about a potentially poisoned water system in a city of nearly 100,000 people. Why on earth would the EPA do that?

‘A Longstanding Pattern Of Minimizing Risks’

At first, it looked like the reason may have been legal. EPA Region 5 Administrator Dr. Susan Hedman — who has since resigned over her handling of the crisis — said the EPA delayed action because it was “waiting for a legal opinion that wasn’t completed until November 2015.” According to TIME, that opinion contained information about whether the EPA could force the state to act.

An EPA spokesperson told ThinkProgress that no one was available to discuss the legal reasons behind delaying action. But some argue that the so-called “legal opinion” was a distraction — that the EPA could have gone public with information about Flint’s lead contamination while it tried to get Michigan to take action.

“[The legal opinion] really doesn’t have anything to do with why they waited,” Jennifer Chavez, an Earthjustice attorney who works on lead regulation, told ThinkProgress. “I would say there is just a longstanding pattern of minimizing the risks from lead in drinking water at EPA.”

Chavez said the EPA has a history of waiting until it’s too late when it comes to lead, a highly poisonous neurotoxin that can permanently damage children’s brains. She cited the infamous lead contamination of Washington, D.C. in 2001 — EPA officials knew of high levels in 2002, she noted, but it wasn’t until a 2004 Washington Post investigation that the public was fully aware of the problem.

That 2004 investigation found that evidence that EPA and other water agencies were misreporting lead levels across the country. But it wasn’t the last time the EPA would be faulted. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office released another damning report, finding that the EPA “has been slow to force states to collect and report required data on lead levels in drinking water and has little information on schools and child-care facilities.”

Now, Chavez says she sees evidence of a continuing problem. For the last 18 months, she has been tracking the EPA’s progress as it attempts to revise the Lead and Copper rule, a regulation which aims to control lead and copper in drinking water. And as she watches the progress of the working group EPA commissioned to discuss possible changes to that rule, Chavez says she sees a “utility-dominated line of thinking” taking over.

“You can see that the attitude toward customers often portrays them as being difficult and an obstacle that has to be overcome,” Chavez said. “And so when you talk about the need to replace lead service lines, you hear immediately stories of uncooperative customers. It’s just an overarching culture and attitude.”

A Toxic Political Environment

In the case of Flint, Chavez said, the EPA did everything it was required to do under the law. In other words, there is no policy or regulation that required the EPA to tell the public what it knew about the lead in Flint’s drinking water system.

“There was nothing mandatory under the law to alert people,” Chavez said. “It just would have been the right thing to do.”

The EPA admitted it should have done more to alert the people of Flint to their drinking water woes, but also emphasizes that the agency legally did nothing wrong. “What happened in Flint should not have happened,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “While EPA worked within the framework of the law to repeatedly and urgently communicate the steps the state needed to take to properly treat its water, those necessary actions were not taken as quickly as they should have been.”

Another defense EPA could use, however, surrounds a political environment that is often hostile to EPA action. While environmental health advocates roundly say EPA should have done more to warn Flint of its lead contamination, they also acknowledge that the agency is understandably timid in the face of potential political attacks from Republicans who dislike when the federal agency inserts itself into traditionally state-led problems.

“EPA has been lambasted by the Republican Congress,” said Marcie Keever, a legal director for Friends of the Earth. “Their budgets have been cut back. And unfortunately they are very, very sensitive to something like that happening.”

Chavez added that agency is understaffed when it comes to lead issues and that the number of people there who work on the issue is “very small.”

“It’s not a number of staff that you could really dedicate to a particular state in making sure that there is oversight,” she said. “They have a very small core number of people — a few scientists, a few rule writers — and it’s not set up to make EPA the major source of protecting people from lead. The states are given that control.”

Republicans Feeding The Flames

Despite Republicans’ political propensity to want states to be responsible for their own environmental issues, it is primarily Republicans who have led the charge against the EPA in the case of Flint’s water crisis.

“[The EPA is] really guilty of — of [the] horror show,” said Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump when asked about Flint’s crisis. Republican presidential contender Ben Carson took a similar stance. “The federal bureaucracy is not innocent in this,” he said last week.

But while candidates like Trump and Carson have focused blame on the EPA and ignored the role of state officials, Democrats have almost entirely ignored the EPA’s role. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both focused their attention solely on Gov. Snyder. Clinton said Snyder acted like “he didn’t really care;” Sanders said he should resign. Neither have mentioned the EPA’s longstanding troubles with reporting lead contamination, the understaffing, or the toxic political environment surrounding the agency.

As Flint’s water remains contaminated, however, environmental health advocates like Keever hope that members of both parties will recognize that there is plenty of blame to go around.

“The politics need to be put aside,” Keever said. “And it doesn’t sound like that’s happening here.”