Water crisis in Flint 'gets big'

EPA issues emergency order over water crisis in Flint, after having warned since September that crisis could ‘get big’

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Volunteers distribute bottled water to help combat the effects of the crisis when the city's drinking water became contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead in Flint, Michigan, in this March 5, 2016.

The administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency warned in September that the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, could "get very big" months before the EPA issued an emergency order requiring the state and city to take immediate steps to protect residents, emails released on Wednesday showed.

Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote in a Sept. 26, 2015, email to EPA staff that the Flint water issue was "really getting concerning" and asked for a meeting to be scheduled to determine "where we are now and what needs to be done by whom."

McCarthy wrote, "This situation has the opportunity to get very big very quickly."

She asked officials in another email the same day for options on federal intervention.

The top of the Flint Water Plant tower is seen in Flint, Michigan in this photo taken February 7, 2016.

The EPA released 1,200 pages of redacted emails on Wednesday on the agency's response to the Flint water crisis.

An EPA spokeswoman did not comment on McCarthy's emails.

In response to concerns from her deputy about the EPA possibly intervening, McCarthy wrote on Sept. 26, "There is danger if we do not weigh in as well. Doesn't need to be formal but doing nothing is fraught as well."

In January the EPA issued an emergency order requiring Michigan and the city of Flint to take immediate steps to protect residents after determining that their response to the crisis had been "inadequate to protect human health."

On Tuesday in a Washington Post editorial, McCarthy defended the EPA's actions, suggesting Michigan was "dismissive, misleading and unresponsive" and federal officials were "provided with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information."

"As a result, EPA staff members were unable to understand the scope of the lead problem until more than a year after the switch to untreated water," she wrote.

"While we were repeatedly and urgently telling the state to do so, looking back, we missed opportunities late last summer to get our concerns onto the public’s radar."

Demonstrators protest over the contaminated water crisis outside of the venue where the Democratic US presidential candidates' debate was being held in Flint, Michigan, March 6, 2016.

McCarthy's emails came after then EPA regional administrator Susan Hedman sent an email to superiors saying that controversy surrounding lead in Flint water was increasing after local doctors said lead levels in children had doubled since the city switched to Flint River water.

Hedman, who was criticised for her handling of the crisis, resigned in February. She testified to a Congressional committee on Tuesday and was chastised by House members for not moving fast enough to address the crisis.

McCarthy, who is due to testify before the same committee on Thursday, could face questions about the urgency of the EPA to address the issue.

"While EPA did not cause the lead problem, in hindsight, we should not have been so trusting of [Michigan] for so long when they provided us with overly simplistic assurances of technical compliance rather than substantive responses to our growing concerns," her written testimony released on Wednesday said. "I’m personally committed to doing everything possible to make sure a crisis like this never happens again."

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who has apologised for the state's poor handling of the crisis, is also due to testify on Thursday.

Snyder in written testimony released late on Wednesday said "inefficient, ineffective, and unaccountable bureaucrats at the EPA allowed this disaster to continue unnecessarily." He called on McCarthy for the EPA to accept its share of the blame.

Demonstrators protest over the contaminated water crisis outside of the venue where the Democratic US presidential candidates debate was being held in Flint, Michigan in this photo taken March 6, 2016.

McCarthy wrote in a Sept. 27 email that the "state needs to step up here. Wonder if it isn't the best solution to ask the state to support the shift back to Detroit water in the short term."

The state helped Flint switch back to Detroit water in October. The same month the EPA established a task force to provide technical advice to help Flint's water switch. EPA also announced an audit of Michigan's environmental agency in November.

Under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, Flint, a working class mostly African-American city of 100,000 north of Detroit, switched water supplies to the Flint River in 2014, to save money.

The more corrosive river water, which was not treated, caused more lead to leach from the city's aging water pipes than the Detroit water the city had previously, causing a public health threat marked by high lead levels in blood samples taken from children. Lead is a toxic agent that can damage the nervous system.

TRTWorld, Reuters