By Julie Mack
The Environmental Protection Agency should have reacted much more quickly and forcefully to the Flint water crisis, even if it meant asserting emergency authority over the Michigan Department of Environment Quality, according to report released today the EPA's Office of Inspector General.
While critical mistakes made by the DEQ created the crisis, the EPA's failure to take timely action compounded the problems, said the report.
The analysis includes nine recommendations for the EPA to strengthen its oversight of drinking water, said the analysis, which is the inspector general's final report examining the circumstances of and the EPA's response to the water crisis.
"While oversight authority is vital, its absence can contribute to a catastrophic situation," EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins said in a press release accompany the report. "This report urges the EPA to strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs now so that the agency can act quickly in times of emergency."
The study is the inspector general's final report on circumstances of and the EPA's response to the Flint water crisis.
The crisis began in April 2014 when Flint switched its drinking water supply but, on the advice of DEQ staff, did not inadequately treat the water, exposing Flint residents to high levels of lead.
Contaminated water also has been linked to 72 cases of Legionnaire's disease, including 12 deaths.
The report fault the DEQ for the water-treatment issues and then ignoring red flags about the water quality for the next 17 months.
One reason the problems were ignored: Flint failed to maintain an inventory of its lead water pipes, as required by federal Lead and Copper Rule. That prevented proper testing of the water, which contributed to the DEQ's repeated -- and false -- assurances that the city's water met federal standards, the report said.
By spring 2015, the EPA was aware of potential problems with Flint drinking water, but failed to take action for months because EPA's regional managers determined it was a state responsibility.
The report said that the EPA could have issued an administrative order, "commenced civil action," withheld grant funds or even asserted emergency authority to force the DEQ to address the water problems.
"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 (Safe Drinking Water Act) authorities in conjunction with EPA oversight tools," the report says.
Today's report echoed an interim report that found the EPA had the authority and sufficient information to issue an emergency order to protect Flint residents seven months before issuing such an order.
The new report offers nine recommendations for the EPA. They are:
1. Verify states are monitoring compliance with all Lead and Copper Rule requirements, including water treatment plans and the requirement for communities to maintain a list of lead pipes.
2. Revise the Lead and Copper Rule to improve monitoring and corrosion control treatment protocols. Flint's lead contamination was caused when under-treated water corroded the city's lead pipes, allowing the lead to leach into the water.
3. Publicly document clear expectations, roles and responsibilities between the EPA and the state of Michigan in an official document, such as a memorandum of understanding or a supplemental primacy document.
4. Incentivize regional EPA staff to evaluate and address issues related to public health and the environment.
5. Provide the public with all results from EPA reviews of Michigan's Safe Drinking Water Act program, and track the progress of identified corrective actions.
6. Provide regular training for EPA drinking water staff, managers and senior leaders on Safe Drinking Water Act tools and authorities; state and agency roles and responsibilities; and any Safe Drinking Water Act amendments or Lead and Copper Rule revisions.
7. Create a better risk-assessment system for state drinking water programs.
8. Create a system that tracks citizen complaints and gathers information on emerging issues. The system should assess the risk associated with the complaints, including efficient and effective resolution.
9. Improve oversight by establishing a clear and credible escalation policy for EPA intervention in states. The policy should provide steps the EPA will take when states do not act.
The EPA and the inspector general have agreed on corrective actions for eight of the recommendations, the report said.
But the EPA's plan to address to address the first recommendation -- verifying states' compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule -- remains "unresolved," the report said.
The EPA says it plans to develop a pilot project to address the recommendation. But Office of Inspector General "does not agree that developing a pilot or approach constitutes establishing annual controls, per the recommendation language. The OIG did not accept this response as meeting the intent of Recommendation 1, and this recommendation remains unresolved," the report said.
Flint was under a state-appointed emergency manager while the crisis was unfolding, which means the state was heavily implicated in the decisions around the water treatment and ignoring red flags about the water quality.
Eleven individuals, most of them state employees, are now facing criminal charges as a result of an investigation by the Michigan attorney general's office.
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