Resignation of EPA Official Highlights D.C. Role in Flint Crisis

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Michigan National Guard member Zach Burrell helps distribute water to residents in their cars in Flint, Michigan, on January 21. Locals are relying on bottled water as state and federal officials investigate the ongoing drinking-water crisis in their city. Rebecca Cook/Reuters

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional chief responsible for overseeing Michigan is resigning in the wake of accusations that she didn’t act fast enough to protect the public from the ongoing toxic-drinking-water crisis in Flint.

For at least a year, high levels of lead have plagued the city’s water supply. But active response from all levels of government was delayed, coming almost two years after some residents first reported their tap water looking, smelling and tasting strange.

The regional administrator, Susan Hedman, has faced criticism for downplaying the significance of the water crisis, which stems from a decision in April 2014 to change the city’s water source from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to cut costs. After only a month, residents complained about their water, and it wasn’t until more than a year later that tests showed elevated lead levels in the water and in the blood of some residents—including children. The state decided to switch back to Detroit’s water in October 2015. But the damage had been done: Inadequately treated water from the Flint River caused lead to leach from pipes.

Hedman last week told The Detroit News that her office knew in April 2015 that switching the water supply could enhance pipe corrosion and thus increase lead levels in residents’ drinking water in the city of 100,000. Instead of informing the public, she demanded that Michigan officials fix the problems, which took months.

Criticism of both the state and federal response has grown in recent weeks. It wasn’t until January 5 that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint. Some protesters have called on him to resign for his handling of the situation, which is the biggest crisis to have rocked his administration. Last fall, Flint residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the governor, state and city. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Michigan is investigating the crisis, but that response also came more than a year after the city began getting water from the Flint River.

Snyder and other critics have questioned the EPA’s response, while the agency this week pointed fingers at state officials for not taking action fast enough. The EPA has blamed its slow response on failure and resistance at the state and local levels to work together in a transparent and proactive manner.

The White House didn’t step in until January 16, when President Obama declared a state of emergency in Michigan and signed an emergency declaration to provide Flint with up to $5 million in federal assistance. But he didn’t go as far as approving an additional request from Snyder to declare the situation a major disaster—a designation that applies to natural disasters and similar situations—because, the White House said, the situation was man-made.

The EPA on Thursday announced in an emergency order that it plans to take over lead sampling in the city in an effort to ensure residents have accurate information. The EPA will implement sampling and analysis of lead levels in Flint’s water system, then publish the results on its website to provide the public with more reliable information.

The agency also sent a letter to Snyder telling him the city is violating federal drinking water rules and must work quickly to fix them. The agency on Friday waits to hear from Snyder about how the state will proceed.

Hedman’s resignation from the EPA will be effective as of February 1. Dan Wyant, the director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, resigned in December over his role in the situation.