EPA attacks Obama’s Flint response in pre-election push

By Hannah Northey, Jeremy P. Jacobs | 10/20/2020 01:12 PM EDT

As President Trump seeks to burnish his green credentials before Election Day, he’s poised to zero in on a major crisis from the Obama era with environmental justice implications: water contamination in Flint, Mich.

The Flint, Mich., water plant.

The Flint, Mich., water plant. George Thomas/Flickr

As President Trump seeks to burnish his green credentials before Election Day, he’s poised to zero in on a major crisis from the Obama era with environmental justice implications: water contamination in Flint, Mich.

EPA is putting the final touches on new water quality standards for old lead and copper pipes like those that caused trouble in Flint.

The problem continues to plague cities across the nation, particularly those with large Black populations that Trump is trying to win over politically.


EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has repeatedly highlighted the Flint crisis in touting the new rule.

"On the campaign trail, President Trump said he wants to make sure that there were no more Flint, Michigans, and that has been a guiding principal that he directed us to," Wheeler told ABC News earlier this month.

"One of the reasons why we’re requiring notification if lead is found in the water within 24 hours — he was very disturbed with what happened in Flint," Wheeler continued. "It was a failure of communication by both the local, state and the EPA during the Flint crisis. So this was a huge priority for him — it’s been a huge priority for us at the agency."

And in September, the EPA chief lambasted the Obama administration for claiming to have worked on the Lead and Copper Rule for eight years "with nothing to show" and tied the rule to the crisis that unfolded in Flint. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden served as vice president under President Obama.

"They even had a wake-up call in Flint, Mich., in 2014 but still did nothing," Wheeler told the American Enterprise Institute. "We will finalize our Lead and Copper Rule in the next several weeks, which, for the first time ever, will call for the testing of lead in all schools and day care centers."

Despite the timeline given, the rule has yet to be released and is currently with the Office of Management and Budget for interagency review. Sources are unsure what is holding up its release.

The Flint water crisis exploded in 2014 when the central Michigan city changed its water source. Flint River water was pumped through the city’s pipes without being treated with inhibitors, allowing dangerous levels of lead, a potent neurotoxin, to leach from the pipes and into the city’s water supply.

It was a black eye for the Obama administration, which otherwise earned high marks from environmental groups.

Democrats, however, say politics is afoot. The administration is attempting to appeal to swing voters such as suburban women who, according to polling, the president is losing by significant margins.

Indeed, they pointed to the recent efforts by EPA to tout environmental initiatives across the country, including a plan to clean up ocean plastic (E&E News PM, Oct. 19). Trump has also stopped talking about reviving the country’s sagging coal industry (Greenwire, Oct. 15).

"It’s impossible for Donald Trump to successfully paint himself as anything but the worst environmental president in American history," said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute. "There’s not a voter in America who is that gullible. It won’t work in Michigan or anywhere else."

Biden has also pledged on the campaign trail to address water quality issues, like those in Flint.

Bledsoe, who worked on climate issues in the Clinton administration, said Trump has sought to make environmental deregulation a "culture war flashpoint." He can’t just switch back to supporting environmental protections, Bledsoe said.

"That’s the horse he’s saddled up with, and he can’t get off it now," Bledsoe said. "No one will believe it now."

A ‘bit too tone-deaf’

Still, there is some recognition among Democrats that the Obama EPA’s record on the issue was weak.

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy yesterday took some responsibility for the Flint crisis.

"Flint happened under my watch. I accept that," McCarthy, who is now the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said at an American Bar Association event yesterday.

"Should it have happened? No," she added. "We were kind of the cop on the beat, and we were checking, but we believed that the state was doing its job."

McCarthy said EPA was misled; it was "too trusting" of Michigan’s regulatory agencies and didn’t know the new water was being delivered untreated. She conceded that EPA was a "bit too tone-deaf about the challenges and the stories we were seeing about the challenges in Flint."

Old lead pipes continue to be a major water quality problem across the country, and recently reports of contamination have surfaced in Newark, N.J.

But McCarthy also criticized the new Trump rule, casting skepticism on its reach and depth.

A draft of the final rule obtained by E&E News shows the administration is strengthening some parts of federal regulations for lead and copper oversight, but at the same time providing more than double the amount of time the nation’s water utilities have to replace service lines with serious lead contamination (Greenwire, Sept. 28).

EPA estimates there are between 6 million and 10 million lead service lines throughout the country.

"This EPA, in its own inimitable style," McCarthy said, "didn’t treat it with the seriousness that it deserves."

Betsy Southerland, a former manager in EPA’s Office of Water whose staff worked on the Lead and Copper Rule under the Obama administration, said the agency at the time was conducting detailed modeling of lead and copper in drinking water and ran out of time to update the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule.

That work, she emphasized, was separate from enforcement of the federal Lead and Copper Rule in Flint. Southerland has criticized the Trump administration’s proposal for slowing the replacement of lead service lines.

"I would be disgusted if this administration bragged about their Lead and Copper Rule," said Southerland. "If the Obama administration has been able to propose the rule, I am certain they would have wanted to accelerate protection of public health by removing more lead service lines faster."

‘Hugely damaging’

Politically, it is also unclear whether the new rule will score points for the president.

Quillan Robinson, the vice president of government affairs for the American Conservation Coalition, said his group hasn’t worked directly on the Lead and Copper Rule and couldn’t comment on the specifics.

But he added that he was moved by a recent speech from Wheeler in which he highlighted EPA’s goals in a second Trump term. They included a vow that every ZIP code deserves clean air and water.

Robinson said such language is effective and usually is reserved for the left.

"We know Republicans struggle with environmental issues and the perception of President Trump is that he has not been good on the environment," Robinson said. "Our frustration is the issue of climate change."

But Robinson said that while addressing conservation issues like water pollution is a smart political move and one that resonates with voters, Trump’s denial of the threat of climate change has been "hugely damaging" to the party, and across the political spectrum people want to see action.

In the end, that denial may very well overshadow any last-minute attempts to burnish the president’s environmental record on other issues.

"From a national perspective, it’s very difficult to outweigh his lack of action and acknowledgement of what Americans most identify with environmental issues, climate change," he said. "I don’t know if that can be outweighed by work on other issues."