By Todd Spangler
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in an emergency order Thursday that it plans to take over lead sampling in Flint, Mich., after sharply criticizing local and state officials in the handling of the city's water crisis, saying repeated delays and a lack of transparency continue to pose "an imminent and substantial" danger to residents.
Months after the problems with the water in Flint first came to light, the EPA said in its Thursday emergency order and in a letter from Administrator Gina McCarthy to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder that "there continues to be inadequate transparency and accountability with regard to ... test results and actions taken ... critical for the people of Flint."
"EPA will promptly begin sampling of lead levels and other contaminants in the city to assure that all regulatory authorities and the public have accurate and reliable information," the emergency order said, adding that months after the agency required corrosion controls to be added to the water system and it switched its water source back from the Flint River to Lake Huron water, "underlying problems" and "fundamental deficiencies" remain.
It gave the state a day to agree to comply with the order. Dave Murray, a spokesman for Snyder, said the state "stands ready to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and all agencies to fix the water crisis in Flint."
The order, which calls for the state to create a public website where all reports and sampling results will be made public and for the city of Flint and the state to generate an inventory of all homes in the city with lead service lines, was the strongest statement yet by the EPA in the controversy, which has come under scrutiny for its handling of the crisis as well. On Thursday, the agency also reported that its Midwest Region 5 director in Chicago, Susan Hedman, tendered her resignation, effective Feb. 1, in the wake of the crisis.
McCarthy accepted the resignation, the EPA said in an email, "given Susan's strong interest in ensuring that EPA Region 5's focus remains solely on the restoration of Flint's drinking water." Hedman and some of her staff have come under criticism for not reacting more swiftly to reports _ some of which came almost a year ago _ to high levels of lead found in Flint residents' water. Those reports were disputed, however, by the state Department of Environmental Quality, which maintained for months that the water was safe.
Outside testing has shown a spike in lead levels in children's blood in the city as well as raised dire concerns about the corrosive nature of the Flint River water, which has caused lead to leach from old service lines. The EPA has said Flint and the state DEQ should have required treatments for corrosion control before switching to the river water, a claim DEQ previously disputed but now accepts.
But EPA also has been criticized for appearing at times over the last year to defer to DEQ's claims, even when its own scientist found high lead levels in homes. At one point, Hedman told the former Flint mayor that a draft report of those levels, which circulated without agency permission, should have been kept under wraps until it had been vetted and revised _ a process that took months.
"We've said since day one everyone at every level needs to be held accountable for whatever role they had in this crisis. It's unfortunate the Legislature and state aren't moving nearly as swiftly as the federal government now appears to be," said state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat.
The EPA, which could also be called to appear at a congressional hearing said to be set for early next month, also requested that its Inspector General evaluate Region 5's supervision program for public water systems, a move U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., applauded as a way to "better understand how EPA could have helped prevent Flint's water crisis and what they can do to keep this situation from ever happening again."
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, announced in remarks to the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Thursday that more funding could soon be on the way to help Flint manage its water crisis: with $80 million on its way to the state next week, at least some of which could potentially be used to help rebuild water lines and other infrastructure in the city.
Obama, who declared a state of emergency in Flint last Saturday, noted that earlier this week he met with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver "to talk about what has been an inexcusable situation with respect to drinking water there."
"In last month's bipartisan budget agreement, we secured additional funding to help cities like yours build water infrastructure," Obama continued, "and we're going to have that funding available to you by the end of next week, and that includes more than $80 million for the state of Michigan."
Obama was referring to funding already allocated, but not yet made available, to Michigan through a federal revolving loan fund enacted through the current fiscal year budget by Congress. States use the funds to make low-cost loans to eligible entities, including municipalities, for water infrastructure, meaning Flint could be a prime candidate.
However, it was not immediately known how much, if any, of that funding would go to Flint or its capacity to cover even low-interest loans.
Certainly there is a need for funding, however. Snyder had previously asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for more than $50 million for infrastructure repairs as part of a major disaster declaration request that was denied last week because the Flint crisis does not meet the federal definition of a major disaster under FEMA's controlling statutes.
But even if all of the $80 million went to Flint, replacing lead service lines and making other infrastructure repairs there could cost far more, from between $700 million to more than $1 billion by some estimates.
Even so, Michigan officials seized on the announcement as evidence that Obama was committed to helping Flint, where residents have been complaining of foul smelling, discolored water since switching to using the Flint River as its water source in 2014 as what was supposed to be a temporary, cost-cutting move.
"I want to thank President Obama for quickly responding to our request for federal assistance," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., adding that it's the state that bears primary responsibility for the situation in Flint and the state which "must take lead in making things right for Flint families."
"It's time for the governor to act and prioritize Flint. Our community should get a significant share of these new federal resources to begin to repairing the damage done by this terrible manmade crisis," said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich.
EPA's emergency order and letter to Snyder, who has apologized for the state's role in the Flint water crisis, suggested that even though the response in Flint has grown considerably in recent weeks and months _ with several federal agencies and the National Guard there handing out bottled water, water filters and arranging blood tests, especially for children _ deep concerns remain.
Noting that it was the Michigan DEQ and the city of Flint that moved to using Flint River water without corrosion controls and "triggered a cascade of events," the EPA said not only did those parties fail to protect public health, "there continue to be delays in responding to critical EPA recommendations and in implementing the actions necessary to reduce and minimize the presence of lead and other contaminants in the water supply."
The agency said the problems will continue until the deficiencies are addressed and moved not only to set rules for the kind and level of corrosion controls which would be used, but to require specific plans for reviewing those levels, setting water quality parameters and monitoring equipment.
It also called on the city and state to set up an independent advisory panel to advise them on drinking water issues, and said that before any move to a new Lake Huron water system is permitted the city must show it has the "technical, managerial and financial capacity" to do so and ensure that all testing has been completed.
(Free Press Staff Writer Kathleen Gray contributed to this report.)
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