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EPA issues emergency order over Flint water crisis, administrator who oversees Michigan resigns

The water emergency in Flint, Michigan is two years in the making. Meet the people who’ve played a key role in the crisis. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday evening that authorities in Michigan had failed to properly respond to an ongoing crisis involving lead-poisoned water in Flint, Mich., saying it would begin testing the city’s water and ordering an independent review of what happened.

In addition, the EPA announced that Susan Hedman, the agency’s administrator who oversees Michigan, had resigned in the wake of the crisis. Hedman offered her resignation effective Feb. 1 and Gina McCarthy, who heads the agency, accepted it, the EPA said in a statement.

McCarthy wrote a letter to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) saying that the EPA was “deeply concerned” about the the response in Michigan. She said that there had been some progress being made by city and state officials, but decried “inadequate transparency and accountability” when it comes to the results of water testing and other actions.

Outrage has mounted in Flint over lead that seeped into the city’s water supply, an issue that has sparked heated criticism and questions about why it took so long for local concerns about the water to be heeded.

“The EPA’s previous response to Flint was, frankly, part of the problem,” Henry Henderson, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest director, said in a statement. “This new, more urgent approach shows different thinking from the top, reflects an awareness that the situation in Flint is just unacceptable, and it points the Agency in the right direction. However, we remain very concerned that the people of Flint cannot simply rely on agencies that have to date utterly failed them.”

A day before the EPA letter, Snyder released 273 pages of emails that he said he was releasing to give residents “answers to your questions about what we’ve done and what we’re doing to make this right.”

Take a look at the key moments that led up to Flint, a city of 90,000, getting stuck with contaminated water. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

In these emails, authorities in the state said they felt the issue was being politicized and questioned research showing elevated lead activity. At one point, a top aide said that state officials felt people in Flint were trying to turn the issue “into a political football” and shift blame. A message with background information from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality discussing the water situation acknowledged that Flint had “tremendous need to address its water delivery system.”

The emails only cover correspondence sent to and from Snyder’s email address regarding Flint, and so they provide an incomplete picture of how the official response unfolded in Michigan. But they illuminate how top officials responded to a concern that has, in recent weeks, broken out into a national controversy.

Dennis Muchmore, who was then Snyder’s chief of staff, wrote in September that state officials in two agencies felt that “some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football” and pointing blame at the state level.

Muchmore wrote that “the real responsibility” was on the local level, but continued that “since the issue here is the health of citizens and their children we’re taking a pro-active approach” in responding.

[National Guard called to help Flint respond to water crisis]

In April 2014, Flint stopped getting water from Detroit and began using water from the Flint River. The change was announced in a news release that acknowledged “lingering uncertainty about the quality of the water” and also sought to “dispel myths and promote the truth about the Flint River and its viability as a residential water resource,” assuring the public that the the water would be tested.

Residents quickly began complaining of water that smelled or was discolored. Flint began getting water from Detroit again in October, but by that time some residents had been drinking the water for 19 months.

Muchmore wrote to Snyder in September that “residents are caught in a swirl of misinformation and long term distrust of local government unlikely to be resolved.”

“[S]ome of the Flint people respond by looking for someone to blame instead of working to reduce anxiety,” Muchmore wrote in that email. “We can’t tolerate increased lead levels in any event, but it’s really the city’s water system that needs to deal with it.”

He also said the state had to continue to try to help, continuing: “We’re throwing as much assistance as possible at the lead problem as regardless of what the levels, explanations or proposed solutions, the residents and particularly the poor need help to deal with it.”

Researchers found elevated levels of lead in Flint’s water supply and reported that blood tests found that lead contamination had nearly doubled and tripled in children younger than 5 who were exposed to the highest lead levels.

[This is how toxic Flint’s water really is]

Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in a person’s body, and even low levels of lead in a child’s blood have been found to affect IQ, attention spans and performance in school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also says that the effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.

A document containing background information sent to Snyder from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last February stated: “Flint is old. Many of the homes served by the system are old….Again, discoloration is not an indicator of water quality or water safety, but we recognize that nobody likes it.”

Flint’s new mayor has questioned whether the same situation could have unfolded in a different area. “It’s a minority community, it’s a poor community, and our voices were not heard,” Karen Weaver told reporters in Washington on Wednesday. “And that’s part of the problem.”

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver calls the city's water crisis a "travesty". (Video: Reuters)

According to the U.S. Census, more than 4 in 10 Flint residents live below the poverty line, more than double the percentage statewide.

Snyder apologized to the residents of Flint during his State of the State address this week and promised that he would seek long-term assistance for the city’s residents.

“To you, the people of Flint, I want to say tonight, as I have before, I am sorry, and I will fix it,” Snyder, a Republican first elected in 2010, said during his speech.

He also called for $28 million in additional state funds to help respond to the crisis, which the state House of Representatives approved Wednesday.

The Flint crisis has sparked widespread outrage and prompted lawsuits as well as federal scrutiny. But even as anger mounted over the exposure of children to lead, there have also been longstanding questions about the official response to the situation.

An independent researcher at Virginia Tech accused the Environmental Protection Agency’s Midwest regional administrator of failing to disclose findings last summer that the water had dangerously high lead levels. In an email to The Post, EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said that the agency did not release the memo in question because it “contained confidential personal and ­enforcement-sensitive information,” but that it was “immediately circulated” to the regional team “that was working to require Flint to implement corrosion control” last summer.

President Obama was in Michigan on Wednesday for a trip to Detroit, and he criticized what he called an “inexplicable and inexcusable” delay in how authorities responded to the problem.

“What is inexplicable and inexcusable is once people figured out there was a problem and that there was lead in the water. The notion that immediately families were not notified, things were not shut down—that shouldn’t happen anywhere,” Obama told CBS News. “It’s also an indication that sometimes we downplay the role that an effective government has to play in protecting public health and safety of people and clearly the system broke down.”

Weaver, the newly elected mayor of Flint, met with Obama on Tuesday, three days after he signed an emergency declaration freeing up federal funds for the response in Flint. She said residents were reeling from “broken trust” due to the water crisis.

“This is something that nobody should have to deal with,” she said Wednesday. “Everybody should have clean water. It’s ironic when you live in the ‘Great Lake State’ and you don’t have access to clean water.”

Emily Badger and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.


Mayor of Flint talks of ‘broken trust’

Meet Rick Snyder, the governor at the center of the crisis

In Flint, Mich., there’s so much lead in children’s blood that a state of emergency is declared

This post has been updated.