EPA watchdog faults ‘management weaknesses’ in Flint water crisis

Placards posted above water fountains warn against drinking the water at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint Michigan

The Flint Water Plant water tower is seen in Flint, Mich.

A federal watchdog is calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen its oversight of state drinking water systems in the wake of the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan. In a report released July 19, the EPA's Office of Inspector General says the agency must act now to be able to react more quickly in times of public-health emergencies. "Water quality is too serious a question ... without doing more to assure the rule is being properly enforced". "The agency is actively engaging with states to improve communications and compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to safeguard human health".

"While oversight authority is vital, its absence can contribute to a catastrophic situation", EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins said in releasing the findings, which found that "while Flint residents were being exposed to lead in drinking water, the federal response was delayed, in part, because the EPA did not establish clear roles and responsibilities, risk assessment procedures, effective communication and proactive oversight tools".

Flint's tap water became contaminated with lead in 2014 after officials switched from the Detroit system to the Flint River to save money.

CARMODY: The inspector general's audit recommends several changes aimed at speeding up the EPA's response to public health emergencies.

When investigators asked the EPA's Region 5 staff about the citizen complaints, they responded, "Generally, there is little or no correlation between citizen complaints about water and lead content", according to the report.

In addition, it urged the agency to create a system that tracks citizen complaints and gathers information on emerging issues. The EPA says there is no safe level of lead. Its regional leader resigned - as the state's water quality director had done just weeks before.

Rep. Kildee, a Democrat whose district includes Flint, issued a statement calling Thursday's report "one form of holding those responsible accountable", CBS affiliate WNEM-TV reports. "In Congress, I have worked to pass new laws, like the Kildee-Upton law, that now requires the EPA to immediately notify the public after learning of high levels of lead in drinking water", Kildee said. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher and one of the people who discovered high lead levels in Flint, also acknowledged more work needs to be done.

The EPA OIG's office began investigating the agency's handling of the crisis in October 2016, 10 months after the agency issued an emergency order criticizing MI state and local government's handling of the crisis and ordering specific actions be taken to address the public health threat, according to an EPA report.

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A whistleblower in the EPA's Chicago office warned colleagues about the crisis in early 2015 but the agency didn't act until months later. After a draft of Del Toral's report was leaked, EPA's regional administrator apologized to the city.

In January 2016, the EPA notified MI that its actions were inadequate and ordered stronger intervention.

Republican lawmakers accused McCarthy and the Obama EPA of incompetence and neglect.

The city switched back to Lake Huron water in October 2015, but the contamination continued. While that pipeline was under construction, the city turned to the Flint River as a water source in 2014.

CARMODY: The most recent testing shows the amount of lead in the city's tap water continues to decline, though many city residents still refuse to believe their tap water is safe to drink. After the town declared a financial state of emergency in 2011, the state government took budgetary control. For more than a year, residents and local activists complained of problems with the water, insisting it was causing rashes and other health problems.

The Michigan State Department of Environmental Quality wasn't treating the Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agent, in violation of federal law, according to a class action lawsuit. This caused the water to erode the iron water mains, which turned the water color brown.

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 meant to prevent lead exposure, and that the MI state environmental agency's delayed response exposed Flint residents to more lead.

Afterward, some children were found to have elevated lead levels in their blood.

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