National News

After Flint, EPA Urged to Change How It Monitors Water Systems

Posted July 19, 2018 8:17 p.m. EDT
Updated July 19, 2018 8:18 p.m. EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to intervene earlier and stop the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, exposed a need for wholesale changes to how federal officials monitor drinking water systems, a government watchdog said Thursday.

A report from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General said management weaknesses hobbled the agency’s response to the lead and other contaminants that poisoned Flint’s drinking water for more than a year and that federal officials should have taken stronger action to correct repeated blunders by state regulators.

“While Flint residents were being exposed to lead in drinking water, the federal response was delayed, in part, because the EPA did not establish clear roles and responsibilities, risk-assessment procedures, effective communication and proactive oversight tools,” the 74-page report said.

The inspector general called for the EPA to check on states annually to make sure they are complying with federal lead and copper rules, to pay special attention to state regulators in Michigan, and to improve the federal response to water contamination emergencies.

EPA officials said they accepted the recommendations, though some Democrats said they remained skeptical that stricter monitoring would occur under the Trump administration.

“You actually have to get out there and do the oversight,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who represents the Flint area. “It has to be much more aggressive.”

The report comes more than four years after Flint, a financially struggling city of fewer than 100,000 residents, switched its drinking water source to the Flint River. The move was intended to save money, but officials failed to treat the river water with required chemicals that prevent pipes from corroding. Residents were left with discolored, odd-smelling, lead-tainted water that government officials insisted for months was safe, even as residents complained of rashes and illness.

The EPA inspector general has previously faulted the agency’s response in Flint, and residents for years have blamed the tainted water on failures at all levels of government, especially the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which is responsible for ensuring safe drinking water in the state. Several state and local officials have been charged with crimes for their roles in the city’s water crisis.

The new report called for more aggressive federal oversight of states and cited instances when the EPA could have used its authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act to intervene earlier and more forcefully in Flint.

“The Flint water crisis demonstrates that public health is not protected when EPA regional staff — with multiple warning signs — do not use” the agency’s authority under federal law, the report said.

Enesta Jones, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said in a statement that the agency agreed with the inspector general’s recommendations and “is actively engaging with states to improve communications and compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to safeguard human health.”

The EPA’s missteps and lax oversight outlined in the report occurred during the administration of President Barack Obama. But the hands-on approach to regulation that the inspector general called for contrasts with the preferences of the Trump administration, whose EPA leaders have sought to give more authority to state and local agencies.

The report was seen by some as a powerful warning to other cities and states to not stray from federal drinking water standards.

“What this does is remind us that Flint was a serious governmental failure, and that that failure has consequences for other municipalities,” said Peter Jacobson, a professor emeritus of health law and policy at the University of Michigan. “Flint isn’t the only jurisdiction with elevated levels of lead in the water, with failures to monitor lead levels in the water.”

As national attention on Flint’s water crisis has faded, the city’s challenges have persisted. Crews are only midway through a plan to replace lead water lines at all occupied homes in the city. And many residents were outraged earlier this year when Michigan officials ended free bottled water distribution and insisted that the city’s water now meets federal lead standards.

Eric Mays, a Flint City Council member, said Thursday he was pleased that Flint’s situation was forcing a reckoning at the EPA and other agencies that let his city down. “Flint has woke the country up and woke that agency up,” he said.

But the city remains wary. Mays only drinks bottled water.