Top aides at U.S. EPA’s headquarters were discussing their options on the Flint, Mich., drinking water disaster long before the agency elevated its response in January this year.
Schedules obtained by Greenwire under the Freedom of Information Act show that the most senior-level officials at the agency were discussing the crisis in Flint last autumn. A series of meetings beginning in September — often organized by Stan Meiburg, EPA’s acting deputy administrator — listed attendees from across the agency to discuss what was going on in Flint, according to the documents.
EPA, from its Chicago-based Region 5 office, would establish a task force in October to offer scientific and technical support to Flint. Months later, the agency would heighten its response in January, asserting its federal authority by issuing an emergency order that required action from the city and state.
EPA has since come under scrutiny from lawmakers as well as its inspector general for its sluggish response to the crisis in Flint. Critics of the agency say EPA dawdled, not acting earlier in 2015 on its field staff’s findings of lead and other toxins seeping into Flint’s water.
"The agency values its reputation more than the truth. Everything they do can be explained by their desire to stay out of the spotlight as much as possible, even if little kids are getting lead poisoning," Marc Edwards, a professor and civil engineer at Virginia Tech, told Greenwire.
Edwards helped uncover elevated lead levels in Flint’s drinking water last year. He is scheduled to testify about the crisis before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee later this month.
"I hate to be cynical about it, but the only thing they care about is ridicule," Edwards said of EPA. "They only reacted once it [the crisis in Flint] became an international embarrassment."
The agency, however, was dealing with a city sapped of funds in Flint and state regulators in Michigan who misled EPA and the public over the safety of the city’s drinking water. Flint has been struggling with lead and other contaminants in its water supply over the past year since it switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River for drinking water and then failed to implement corrosion controls at its water treatment plant.
"When EPA looks at these things, it assesses what is the state doing to fulfill its responsibilities," said one former EPA official who is familiar with the agency’s discussions about the Flint drinking water crisis. "This was a much bigger and more serious problem than we [EPA] had been led to believe."
‘Meeting RE: Flint’
On Sept. 30 last year, Meiburg’s office organized a meeting among several of EPA’s top officials.
On the agenda? "Meeting RE: Flint, Michigan Drinking Water," according to records.
Listed among meeting attendees were Susan Hedman, EPA’s former Region 5 administrator; Matt Fritz, the agency’s chief of staff; Ken Kopocis, EPA’s former top water policy official; Tom Reynolds, then EPA’s senior press official; and Laura Vaught, who was handling congressional affairs for the agency.
Hedman was likely calling into EPA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters from her Chicago office for this meeting and others like it. Meeting records that list Hedman among attendees often include a redacted conference call number.
Other meetings would follow, at which EPA officials at the highest level of the agency were scheduled to discuss what was going on in Flint, according to Meiburg’s calendars.
On Oct. 7, Meiburg was scheduled for a "Flint Update not a call with MDEQ." Hedman was listed as one of the meeting attendees for that call. MDEQ stands for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The state agency has come under withering criticism for failing to resolve the crisis in Flint.
The following day, Oct. 8, Meiburg would again meet to discuss Flint with EPA senior staff — including Hedman, Kopocis, Vaught and Liz Purchia, now EPA’s senior communications aide — according to records.
The agency soon began to take its first steps to ensure the safety of Flint’s drinking water. More than a week later, on Oct. 16, EPA would launch its task force to offer support to the city (E&ENews PM, Oct. 16, 2015).
Meiburg’s meetings on Flint would continue throughout the month.
On Oct. 22, the deputy administrator was scheduled to meet with Hedman as well as several other agency press officials, including Purchia. The meeting’s purpose was "to discuss a Draft Flint statement."
It’s not clear what, if any, EPA statement resulted from this meeting. Greenwire asked for a copy of the statement discussed in the meeting but was not provided one.
Meiburg also had another meeting the next day, Oct. 23, to discuss the "Flint drinking water situation." Hedman and Kopocis as well as EPA General Counsel Avi Garbow and Cynthia Giles, the agency’s assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, were slated to attend, according to records.
In addition, Meiburg was also listed as "optional" for a Nov. 17 meeting on Flint.
"The conversations really focused on what is going on, what do we know?" said the former EPA official. "What could we, as an agency, offer to the state and the city to help solve the problem? … We were really digging into here’s the identified problem and what could we do to help solve that problem."
Through the period when EPA was holding these meetings, the agency was coming under increasing pressure to do more to help Flint.
On Oct. 1, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other advocacy groups — including the Flint-based Coalition for Clean Water, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Edwards’ Flint Water Study team — issued a petition for EPA to take emergency action under the Clean Water Act in response to Flint.
"We presented compelling evidence of substantial endangerment to public health," said Dimple Chaudhary, a senior attorney at NRDC. "At least by Oct. 1, they [EPA] had all the information in front of them to act on an emergency order."
Yet the groups’ petition didn’t spark the agency into action. Chaudhary would receive a response from Hedman in December. The regional administrator’s letter outlined the steps the city and state had taken in response to the drinking water crisis, leading EPA to conclude that the petitioners had failed to justify an emergency order from the agency.
Nevertheless, on Jan. 21, EPA would end up issuing such an order to resolve what was going on in Flint (Greenwire, Jan. 22).
"The response we got was deeply unsatisfying. I think it was pretty clear that the city and the state didn’t have this under control. We were perplexed by EPA’s lack of action," Chaudhary said. "It is troubling as to why there was no action until January."
The agency would acknowledge that local and state officials weren’t up to the task. In its emergency order, EPA noted that "the City, MDEQ and the State have failed to take adequate measures to protect public health."
"Although some progress has been made in addressing the drinking water crisis in the City, there continue to be delays in responding to critical EPA recommendations and in implementing the actions necessary to reduce and minimize the presence of lead and other contaminants in the water supply both now and in the near future," said the agency.
Further, the pace of EPA meetings discussing Flint for McCarthy and Meiburg began to pick up early in January to an almost daily clip, according to records. Some even occurred over the weekend.
Attention given to Flint by the federal government reached new heights that month. President Obama signed an emergency declaration Jan. 16 ordering federal aid for state and local response efforts in the city.
EPA would also take other actions in response to concerns over Flint’s drinking water before issuing its order.
For example, the agency launched an audit of MDEQ’s drinking water program to check out the state regulator’s implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act in November last year. The agency’s task force was also making recommendations on how to improve Flint’s water quality in the months before EPA issued its emergency order.
"EPA looks to work with its state and local partners first," the former agency official said.
"There also didn’t seem to be anybody who had 100 percent of the information available to them. So you don’t jump straight out with your authority to issue action orders," the ex-EPA official said. "If EPA could have flipped a switch to provide clean, safe drinking water to the people of Flint, the agency would have done so."
‘What were they doing?’
EPA was also hearing from others before issuing its order, including Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). Kildee’s congressional district includes Flint, where the congressman also resides.
On Oct. 13, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy talked to Kildee over the phone, according to documents.
Records also show that McCarthy would call Hedman later that same day, though it’s not clear what the EPA officials discussed over the phone. Meiburg was also slated to sit in on that call with Hedman.
Kildee would note his phone call with the agency administrator later in an Oct. 21 letter sent to the agency chief on the Flint crisis. Regarding his phone call with McCarthy, the lawmaker told Greenwire that he was asking for "technical support."
"My first request to her was to get EPA water experts on the ground in Flint," Kildee said.
Kildee was aware of the problems in Flint, as was EPA.
In a Sept. 9 letter to McCarthy and Dan Wyant, then-director of MDEQ, the congressman attached a memorandum dated last June from Miguel Del Toral, an EPA water official in the agency’s Region 5 office. In the document, Del Toral outlined his findings of high lead levels in Flint’s drinking water in April last year.
Del Toral’s memo is evidence that EPA had knowledge early on of the problems in Flint. Hedman, however, would downplay the memo’s significance in an email to the city’s mayor (Greenwire, Jan. 26).
In an interview with The Detroit News, Hedman said EPA believed that state regulators, rather than federal authorities, should act when it came to Flint. Further, she had sought a legal opinion on whether EPA could force action, which then took months to finalize.
EPA chose poorly by relying on Michigan government officials, who have since been blasted for their handling of the crisis in Flint. Emails show that aides to Snyder were aware of the dangers with the city’s drinking water long before the public knew of any problems (Greenwire, Feb. 26).
Wyant, as head of MDEQ, and Hedman, as EPA Region 5 administrator, have since both resigned from their government positions.
Kildee said Michigan regulators are primarily at fault for what happened in Flint. Nonetheless, EPA is not free of blame, either, according to the congressman.
"I think they [EPA] operated on what proved to be a dangerous and erroneous assumption, in that is what they were hearing from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was something they could trust. That was a big problem," Kildee said. "The principal responsibility that I think the EPA failed to meet was to simply go public when they knew there was a problem. I should have been made aware. The public should have been made aware."
Legislation sponsored by Kildee to expand EPA’s authority to notify the public of elevated lead levels in drinking water overwhelmingly passed the House last month (E&ENews PM, Feb. 10). His bill awaits Senate action and is expected to be included in energy reform legislation still being worked on by senators.
It remains to been what investigators on and off of Capitol Hill will dig up on EPA’s response to Flint over the past year. Regarding the agency’s high-level meetings on the drinking water crisis, Edwards said EPA was found lacking, simply asking, "What were they doing?"
"What else do you need to get up and do your job?" Edwards said. "They had to wait to see the proof of blood lead levels skyrocketing in the neighborhoods in Flint before they said a thing."