EPA Flakes on Flint

Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogI am thrilled to host this guest post from Anjali Waikar, staff attorney for NRDC's Environmental Justice Program:

If you haven't heard by now, there is an existing public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, in which an entire city has been exposed to lead contamination. The source? The city's drinking water. The evidence is clear: no amount of lead exposure is considered safe. Even low lead exposures in childhood can lead to a range of lifelong consequences, including intellectual disabilities, lower IQs, and serious medical conditions.

Last month, NRDC notified the City of Flint and Michigan officials that we plan to sue them for violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the federal law that requires public water systems to test, monitor, and treat drinking water to ensure that it's safe. We served the notice alongside a community group, Concerned Pastors for Social Action, the ACLU of Michigan, and Flint resident Melissa Mays, who have been among those leading the fight to expose this crisis.

In addition to notifying local and state officials about the lawsuit as required under the SDWA, NRDC also petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use its emergency powers to step in and fix this public health crisis.

Astoundingly, last week -- nearly two and a half months after we served the emergency petition calling for immediate action -- the EPA responded with a "status update" saying that it intends to hold off on acting on our emergency petition "until such time as the Agency determines that corrosion control treatment is fully optimized for the Flint system." In other words, EPA told us that it's not acting on the emergency petition until Flint deals with the issue on its own. Thanks, EPA.

Specifically, the "ask" we made to EPA relates to the question of how lead appeared in the water in the first place. One way lead can appear is if the source water coursing through the pipes is corrosive; left untreated, corrosive water can result in lead leaching from the pipes until it makes its way to the faucet. This is what happened when Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014: the river water was highly corrosive, and the city and governmental officials failed to treat it. After the problem was uncovered, we asked EPA to step in to help Flint with this issue by "optimizing corrosion control" to help reduce that leaching effect, as the SDWA requires.

Make no doubt about it: This is a public-health disaster that requires city, state and federal leadership and cooperation, including more transparency about how Flint's drinking water is tested and treated. The state of Michigan and local officials have already made numerous missteps. For example, they had failed to acknowledge that the water wasn't safe to drink - even after testing found dangerously high lead levels in some residents' tap water. They had dismissed residents' concerns as "near hysteri[cal]" and "irresponsible," despite well-established evidence that there is no safe level of lead exposure. It took months of public outcry, led by community advocates like Melissa Mays, before city and state officials finally conceded that there was a problem with the water.

The EPA's reluctance to exhibit any meaningful leadership role in Flint reflects an unfortunate pattern of government officials in this case absolving themselves of any responsibility or wrongdoing. The people of Flint need less governmental mismanagement and more demonstrated leadership from the city, state and federal government. That is why we have given notice of our intent to sue. Adults are needed in the room -- if EPA isn't going to do it, we will.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.