How the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Failed the People of Flint

While blame squarely lays with Michigan state officials, agencies, and possibly Gov. Rick Snyder himself, the EPA also played a role by both detecting the cause of the problem but not acting on the reports of improper treatment of river water.

4 minute read

January 31, 2016, 11:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

As the story of how the crisis on the poisoning of Flint drink water unfolds, the media has highlighted the roles of the extraordinary efforts of professionals and residents who detected a health problem of epic proportions and sought to have it remediated. A short list includes:

Another professional to include in this esteemed list is one of the few governmental employees to play a key role. Unfortunately, his official reports went no further than a superior who chose not to act on them, but his collaborations with the above individuals were invaluable nonetheless.

"In June [2015], more than a year after the city had begun using the Flint River as its water source, an EPA official named Miguel Del Toral wrote up the preliminary results of his investigation into reports of high lead levels," write Arthur Delaney, senior reporter, and Philip Lewis, editorial fellow, of The Huffington Post in a lengthy article that also explores the investigation into the 2001 through 2004 lead contamination of Washington, D.C. tap water prior to analyzing the Flint debacle.

[Readers may wish to scroll way down to the image of "Flint-Vehicle City" where the writers begin their analysis of the Flint investigation.] 

The memo lamented the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's [DEQ] failure to make sure the river water was treated so that it wouldn't corrode the city's pipes, many of which contained lead.

"Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water, which is to be expected in a public water system that is not providing corrosion control treatment," Del Toral wrote. "The lack of any mitigating treatment for lead is of serious concern for residents that live in homes with lead service lines or partial lead service lines, which are common throughout the City of Flint."

"I was stunned when I found out they did not have corrosion control in place," Del Toral said in an interview with The Flint Journal-MLive on Jan. 21, writes Flint Journal reporter Ron Fonge.

The memo was refuted by DEQ officials. "In August, department officials met with Flint residents -- including Walters -- and told them that Del Toral had been 'handled' and that his report wouldn't be finalized," write Delaney and Lewis.

Brad Wurfel, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, told a local reporter in July that "anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax."

For a variety of reasons which Delaney and Lewis describe, Del Toral's report never got past the desk of Susan Hedman, the administrator of the regional EPA office Hedman who has since resigned her position"It seemed the best course of action for us at the time was not to talk about the report per se," Hedman said, "noting that the EPA did say it was helping state and local agencies with the water situation."

The EPA stayed quiet even after Wurfel, the Michigan department spokesman, called Del Toral a "rogue employee" in the fall.

Though the EPA stayed mum about Del Toral's report, Hedman said the Department of Environmental Quality apologized to him for the "rogue" characterization. She emphasized that Del Toral is part of the team. "He is one of the top experts in the world on lead and copper in drinking water and a key member of EPA's Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force," she said.

In response to the reporters' question, "why it took outside pressure to force a change," Hedman responded:

"An informed public that calls on government to take action is an important force for protection of the environment and public health." 

In other words, the public needs to be ever-vigilant—a lesson clearly learned on the West Coast as Porter Ranch, California residents, suffering the effects of a huge natural gas leak since last October, take on SoCal Gas Company and regulatory agencies charged with protecting public health.

In October, DEQ admitted they had erred, reported Stephanie Parkinson for the local NBC affiliate on Oct. 19, 2015.

"We need to acknowledge the DEQ made some mistakes with respect to our protocol," said Dan Wyant, Director, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Like Hedman, Wyant has since resigned his position, as has DEQ spokesman Wurfel.

The EPA is not the first federal agency to not act in the people's best interests during a public health emergency. As Washington Post's metro columnist, Robert McCartney, wrote in May 2010, after "a six-year campaign [by Professor Marc Edwards], the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) admit(ted) that it had misled the public about the risk of lead in the District's drinking water."

Tuesday, January 12, 2016 in Huffington Post

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