When the water source for the city of Flint, Michigan was switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April of 2014, state and local officials failed to use corrosion control chemicals that would have kept lead leeching from pipes into all residents’ drinking water.
Ever since the full extent of the crisis came to light — which has already led to elevated blood lead levels across the city — there’s been an effort to figure out how something like that could have happened. One part of the answer is now available: there was a failure among officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In a new report, the EPA’s inspector general finds that the agency “had the authority and sufficient information” to issue an emergency order that would have helped protect residents as early as June 2015.
While city and state officials had the primary responsibility to institute corrosion controls and, in their absence, protect residents from drinking lead-tainted water, the EPA failed as a backstop, according to the report.
It was in June 2015 that Del Toral, a regional EPA employee, wrote a memo saying that the absence of corrosion control was a major public health concern. The EPA didn’t take any immediate action, noting that the city was still conducting testing.
By June of 2015, though, the inspector general notes that the regional EPA staff had everything they needed to step in and take emergency action in Flint: they knew that corrosion control wasn’t being used, residents had reported problems with their water such as bad odors and discoloration, and some testing at their homes showed lead levels above the federal action level. Lead was identified in drinking water as early as February 2015; in April of that year, the EPA found out that corrosion control wasn’t being used. By June, the EPA also knew that at least four homes had lead levels in their water above the action level of 15 parts per billion.
The EPA also knew at that point that state and local authorities weren’t doing what they should have been doing to protect residents’ health.
The EPA did discuss the problem with the state and offered technical assistance in February of 2015, but the state didn’t do anything, instead saying it would wait on a second round of testing and that Flint had up to five years to optimize corrosion control.
The inspector general’s report notes that the EPA region in charge of Flint decided not to issue an emergency order forcing officials’ hands because it believed the state had jurisdiction. But, it says, the Safe Drinking Water Act does give the EPA authority if the state fails to protect public health. The EPA could have required the city and state to provide other sources of water, study the extent of the problem, or simply step in and start using corrosion control.
The EPA didn’t take action until January 21, 2016, when it issued an emergency order that required the state and city to take actions to address the crisis, including the addition of corrosion control chemicals and the public testing of water samples. In the meantime, residents drank contaminated water for over a year and a half.
There has been plenty of blame to go around in the wake of the crisis. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette brought criminal charges against employees at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and against Flint municipal employees and filed a lawsuit against a private water company that consulted on the situation in Flint. An investigatory panel formed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) blamed a number of entities — including the MDEQ, EPA, and the emergency manager of Flint — but found that the ultimate responsibility laid with the state.
UPDATE: The EPA sent ThinkProgress an emailed statement saying, “EPA issued an order to the City of Flint and the State of Michigan as soon as it became apparent that the city and state were failing to address the serious problems with the Flint drinking water system. We will continue to review the OIG’s findings.” It also said it has completed much of the training recommended by the inspector general’s report and it is going to update its guidance for emergency authority under the Safe Water Drinking Act.