Given the federal government’s response to the Flint water scandal, EPA could stand for Ever Procrastinating Administrators, instead of the Environmental Protection Agency.
While most of the blame for poisoning the city water system rests with Michigan officials, EPA’s reputation has been sullied as an enabler, an accessory and an agency that failed to promptly protect people and the environment. This is the same agency that is attacked from the right, as an overbearing big brother, and the same agency where dedicated employees have worked to improve water in Flint, despite foot-dragging from above.
Flint children have been assaulted, forever wounded by lead contamination. It will plague them for the rest of their lives. Someone must answer for that. The agency’s inspector general has opened an investigation into the response to the water crisis, “including EPA’s exercise of its oversight authority.” The probe will find that one EPA employee, in particular, worked diligently in that oversight role, but without much support.
Only last week, under pressure and months after being prodded, did EPA issue an emergency order to state and city officials, calling on them to ensure safe drinking water. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan formerly requested similar action in October. It wasn’t until December that EPA’s regional chief, Susan Hedman, responded, declining to take action.
EPA seemed to suddenly find urgency in a letter accompanying last week’s order. The agency is “deeply concerned by continuing delays and lack of transparency,” wrote Administrator Gina McCarthy. She cited “the public health emergency that is now unfolding as a result of the failure to properly operate Flint’s system, leading to multiple health-based drinking water violations and unsafe lead levels in the city’s drinking water.” But she made no mention of EPA’s own sluggishness.
“The EPA completely abdicated its responsibility to warn the people of Flint about the lead and the dire health consequences,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan.
“EPA, in the instance of Flint, was unambiguously part of the problem,” added Henry Henderson, NRDC’s Midwest director.
Yet, even as most of the culpability for EPA’s reputation has fallen on one person, Hedman, whose resignation is effective Feb. 1, others in the agency have been lauded for trying to do the right thing.
Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped expose the toxic water crisis, identified EPA “good guys” as Bob Kaplan, Miguel del Toral, Mike Schock and Darren Lytle.
Hedman’s resignation “provides a tiny ray of hope for EPA’s many outstanding scientists and engineers, who desperately want to do their jobs protecting the environment and public health – but are repeatedly hamstrung by incompetent and uncaring management,” Edwards wrote on his team’s blog.
Del Toral, an EPA expert on lead and copper in drinking water, has been singled out for much of the spotlight.
“He’s one of the heroes…. of this whole crisis,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents Flint. “I give him great credit for being willing to stand up and say there’s something wrong here.”
But he might have paid a price for standing up, according to Lee-Anne Walters, a Flint resident who complained about the toxic water that sickened her children. By email, Walters, a member of Water You Fighting For, confirmed a report in Edwards’ blog that said she was told by an EPA official that “‘Mr. Del Toral has been handled,’ and that Flint residents would not be hearing from him again.”
An EPA spokesperson said del Toral had not been reprimanded in any way and noted he has been interviewed by news media. A message on his telephone said he is away this week, so he could not be reached for this column.
Del Toral wrote a report about the lack of corrosion controls in Flint’s water system in June. After it leaked, Hedman wrote an email, secured by Edwards in a Freedom of Information Act request, that seemed to play down del Toral’s findings. “It would be premature to draw any conclusions based on that draft,” Hedman wrote to former Flint mayor Dayne Walling. She expressed no sense of urgency.
McCarthy apparently recognizes that is a problem. The same day she issued the order and letter, she sent a message to all employees urging them to not be satisfied with “simple technical compliance, when a broader perspective would suggest that a larger public health or environmental issue is at stake.”
Without mentioning Flint, she said issues should be elevated for action when “there appears to be a substantial threat to public health; EPA is or can reasonably be expected to be a focus of the need for action; and/or other authorities appear to be unable to address or unsuccessful in effectively addressing such a threat; recourse to normal enforcement and compliance tools is not appropriate or unlikely to succeed in the near term; high and sustained public attention is possible.”
EPA’s action is welcome, albeit belated.
“They knew it was a crisis, they had someone inside who was trying to inform them of the crisis and they refused to act on it,” said pastor Allen Overton, a member of Concerned Pastors for Social Action. “Miguel del Toral, he ought to be the chief over the whole EPA. He’s the only one who had the courage to stand up and say something was wrong. My hat goes off to him.”