WASHINGTON ― The Environmental Protection Agency should have intervened in the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, long before it did, according to a watchdog report released Thursday.
The EPA knew enough in June of last year to declare an emergency in Flint, the agency’s Inspector General report says, but it waited until January to take action.
Specifically, the report says the EPA’s Midwest branch knew in June 2015 that Flint hadn’t treated its water correctly and that “residents had reported multiple abnormalities in the water, and test results from some homes showed lead levels above the federal action level.”
In an email, an EPA spokesperson said the agency had already acted on many of the Inspector General’s recommendations and defended the timeliness of the emergency order it issued in January.
“EPA issued an order to the City of Flint and the State of Michigan as soon as it became apparent that the city and state were failing to address the serious problems with the Flint drinking water system,” the spokesperson said.
Flint’s water trouble began in April 2014. The city, which was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, tried to save money by pumping from the Flint River instead of purchasing it from the Detroit water system. State water regulators mistakenly told Flint not to treat the river water to prevent it from corroding the city’s pipes, many of which are made of lead.
Emails uncovered last year by Marc Edwards, a corrosion expert with Virginia Tech University, revealed that the EPA knew in June that Flint wasn’t treating the water with anti-corrosion chemicals ― and also that some Flint homes had excessively high amounts of lead in their water. Edwards later confirmed the high lead levels by sampling the water himself with a team of volunteers.
Even small amounts of lead exposure can stunt growth and damage children’s developing brains.
Susan Hedman, then-director of EPA’s Region 5, which oversees state water regulators in the Midwest, privately told local officials not to worry about an alarming report by an EPA employee who had investigated the Flint water situation. And the agency didn’t talk publicly about the report even after it had been revealed by the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union.
“It seemed the best course of action for us at the time was not to talk about the report per se,” Hedman told The Huffington Post in January.
“These situations should generate a greater sense of urgency,” says the new Inspector General’s report.
“In August and September 2015, private researchers identified numerous homes with lead contamination, and also identified an increase in the blood lead levels of children living in Flint,” the report says.
The Michigan government admitted its mistake in October and switched Flint back to Detroit’s water after local doctors revealed elevated lead levels in Flint children’s blood.
It wasn’t until January that the EPA declared an emergency and Hedman resigned, although the agency has defended its work in Flint. The city’s water is still not safe to drink.
This article has been updated with a statement from the EPA.