Inspector General: EPA Was Too Slow to Act on Flint Water Crisis

Photo courtesy of EPA’s Inspector General

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Washington, DC) had the authority and information to issue an emergency order regarding lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan, seven months before it formally acted, according to a recent internal investigation report.

“It is clear that EPA intervention was delayed,” the report from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General says. “These situations should generate a greater sense of urgency.”

By June 2015, the EPA’s regional office had information that the city of Flint exceeded the lead level at which corrosion control was required, and it knew that Flint was not using a corrosion inhibitor.

Moreover, the regional office also knew that testing showed high levels of lead in at least four homes, and it knew that state and local authorities were not acting quickly, the report says.

However, the EPA did not issue an emergency order until January 21, 2016.

“Federal law provides the EPA with emergency authority to intervene when the safety of drinking water is compromised,” says Arthur Elkins, inspector general for the EPA. “Employees must be knowledgeable, trained, and ready to act when such a public health threat looms.”

According to the report, issuing an emergency order “could have required the city and state to provide alternative water supplies to affected residents, study the extent and severity of lead contamination within the water system, or immediately begin corrective actions to reduce and eliminate lead contamination in the drinking water system.”

Investigators also found that local authorities “believed that the state of Michigan’s actions to address the Flint situation barred formal federal action. However, the report says that belief was incorrect, noting that the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act states that the EPA can take action if a state’s actions are deemed to be insufficient.

The report concludes that the EPA “needs to clarify for its employees how its emergency authority can and should be used to intervene in a public health threat.”

The problems began when Flint switched to a new water in 2014, citing cost pressures. However, water from that new source, the Flint River, was not adequately treated with corrosion controls. As a result, lead from the city’s pipes was able to leach into the supply of drinking water. Flint switched back to its original water supply in late 2015, but it was too late to reverse the damage to the pipes.

Flint remains in the process of treating its water system, and recent test results show that lead levels in Flint’s water have improved.

For more information, please read our recent quarterly special feature in Materials Performance (MP) Magazine, which examines the lead-tainted water in Flint and the science behind the corrosion problem.