Lapses at all levels of government made Flint water crisis worse: Report
iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — The Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog says that all levels of government — federal, state, and local — failed their oversight responsibilities to ensure that the residents of Flint, Michigan had clean water.
The report on the government response to the crisis in Flint, released Thursday, said there were “implementation and oversight lapses” from the city, Michigan environmental agency, and EPA, and calls for the federal government to take a bigger role in ensuring that state drinking water systems are safe.
The EPA inspector general found that the EPA did not effectively carry out its oversight role under the Safe Drinking Water Act, that the city did not adhere to rules intended to prevent lead exposure, and that the Michigan state environmental agency’s delayed response exposed Flint residents to more lead.
“While oversight authority is vital, its absence can contribute to a catastrophic situation,” EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins said in a statement. “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.”
An EPA spokesman said they have reviewed a draft of the inspector general’s report and that the agency has already moved to take action on several of the recommendations in the report.
“The Office of Water, Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, and Region 5 have already taken steps to implement several of those recommendations and will continue to expeditiously adopt the rest. EPA has provided the Office of the Inspector General with a detailed outline of its planned corrective actions and projected completion dates. The Agency is actively engaging with states to improve communications and compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to safeguard human health,” the spokesman said in a statement.
City officials in Flint, Michigan changed the city’s water supply in 2014 but the water wasn’t treated properly, exposing city residents to elevated lead levels that are considered harmful to young children. The city and state declared a state of emergency in the city the next year after water still tested positive for lead even after the city switched to a different water source.
The EPA’s inspector general previously found that situations like Flint should generate a “greater sense of urgency,” partly because the agency let state officials attempt to deal with the crisis for too long before the federal government intervened.
The inspector general began looking into the EPA’s response to the Flint water crisis in January 2016 and issued an interim finding that October that the EPA could have issued an emergency order seven months before it actually intervened, but the agency didn’t because the EPA regional office did not believe they had the authority to overrule the state.
Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in his first remarks to EPA employees that Flint is an example of how the agency needs to improve the way it communicates with communities impacted by environmental events.
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