EPA official warned of ‘public health disaster’ — emails

By Tiffany Stecker, Kevin Bogardus, Sam Pearson | 05/13/2016 07:57 AM EDT

U.S. EPA officials began discussing worrisome water quality test results found in Flint, Mich., in early 2015, according to emails released by the agency.

U.S. EPA officials began discussing worrisome water quality test results found in Flint, Mich., in early 2015, according to emails released by the agency.

EPA yesterday released several records, including more than 5,100 pages of emails and other documents, under the Freedom of Information Act to Greenwire and other news organizations dealing with the agency’s response to the drinking water crisis in Flint. EPA has been blasted for its slow response to the Flint disaster, which involved lead and other toxins seeping into the city’s water supply.

The records released yesterday paint a picture of an agency taking early note of the problems in Flint that would dominate national headlines later earlier this year.


One official from EPA’s Chicago-based Region 5 Office sent an email in February 2015 alerting her colleagues about high lead levels found in one Flint home’s water by city official Mike Glasgow, who has since reached a plea agreement to cooperate with the ongoing investigation into the crisis (Greenwire, May 5).

"WOW!!! Did he find the LEAD! 104 ppb. [redacted] children under the age of 3. … Big worries here," said Jennifer Crooks, Michigan program manager in the Region 5 water office.

Flint’s drinking water became contaminated with lead over the course of 18 months, after the city ended its water contract with Detroit and began sourcing from the Flint River. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and EPA failed to ensure that the water treatment plant was adding anti-corrosive chemicals to the river water. As a result, the city’s lead pipes slowly eroded, leaching the neurotoxin into tap water. Lead exposure can cause developmental delays in young children.

As the year progressed, more dire warnings flowed in from Region 5 staff about the state of Flint’s drinking water. One of those raising the alarm was Miguel Del Toral, the author of a June 2015 memorandum that caused an uproar among city residents after it leaked to the press.

In one email sent last April, Del Toral said "the Flint situation is another public health disaster in the works." Later that same month, Del Toral warned about higher lead levels in Flint’s water supply than previously indicated by testing.

"I’m worried that the whole town may have much higher lead levels than the compliance results indicated, since they are using pre-flushing ahead of their compliance sampling," Del Toral said.

The EPA official seemed to grow more frustrated with Flint’s not resolving the issue. Soon after writing his fateful memo, Del Toral went on a "rant" in responding to a colleague’s questions. Del Toral said city and state officials should have been warning Flint residents about the high lead levels in their drinking water.

"At a MINIMUM, the City should be warning residents about the high lead, not hiding it telling them that there is no lead in teh [sic] water. To me that borders on criminal neglect," Del Toral said in the email.

Del Toral’s memo was leaked to the press, appearing in a American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan report that July. Soon, Del Toral fell under pressure to quickly finalize the memo — which has been termed a preliminary draft by his superiors — and provide a detailed response to the ACLU report, as well.

"I am really trying to finish this up, and now I am asked to produce it by COB. I cannot, and if I rush (again) my fear is that I am going to step on another landmine," Del Toral said in an email.

A ‘national embarrassment’

Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, who was also investigating the contamination, sometimes emailed Region 5 officials, as well. There is no record that they replied to him directly, but his messages were forwarded throughout the office.

Edwards emailed EPA employees Sept. 20 to say he was "making you aware of what we know regarding the Flint lead situation."

"I believe that someone at HQ or in R5 should immediately take decisive action on this issue to protect the public," Edwards wrote.

After an NPR story was published in September 2015, in which then-Michigan DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel called Del Toral a "rogue employee," Edwards was irate.

EPA would become "a national embarrassment" for failing to force action from the state, Edwards wrote.

He warned that the story said Wurfel "PROMISES THAT the final memo is going to tell a different story" — ensuring that no action would be required of the state.

Lawmakers have debated whether EPA leadership silenced Del Toral or supported him during his work on the water crisis.

The emails suggest that Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman supported Del Toral, rather than hanging him out to dry for leaking information on the high lead levels in Flint’s drinking water. One day after Wurfel was quoted calling Del Toral a "rogue employee," Hedman flagged the issue in an email to top officials at EPA’s headquarters.

In a message sent to acting EPA Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg, then-acting Assistant Administrator for Water Ken Kopocis and former Associate Administrator for Public Affairs Tom Reynolds, among others, Hedman warned they must address Wurfel’s comments and sought advice.

"While EPA employees should not be sharing internal draft documents with the public — I think he was well-intentioned and I don’t think he should be publicly branded as a ‘rogue employee,’" Hedman wrote. "Moreover, many of the recommendations in the draft memo are the very steps that MDEQ and the City are now taking to address the lead problem."

Hedman resigned in January after facing heavy criticism for her handling of the lead contamination.

Hedman’s email echoes her testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in March. In written testimony, she said that after the article appeared, she "immediately" called then-DEQ Director Dan Wyant to complain and considered Del Toral "a valued member of the Region 5 Water Division team."

The city, meanwhile, overstated its amount of coordination with EPA, the emails claimed, like when then-Mayor Dayne Walling described in September a plan as the result of technical coordination with EPA even though a committee on which the federal agency was supposed to provide technical assistance had not yet met.

Damage control

The emails also show that EPA staff — both in Region 5’s Chicago offices and at Washington, D.C., headquarters — carefully minded their image once the Flint crisis started making headlines last fall.

When EPA formed the Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force in October, Administrator Gina McCarthy wanted to make sure the effort was seen as a locally based initiative.

McCarthy "asked me to revise the Task Force description to give it more of a regional flavor — to make it clear that the Task Force is not a bunch of EPA HQ folks swooping in from DC to take over," Hedman wrote to several Washington, D.C.-based employees. "I thought that the easiest way to accomplish this might be to say that the Regional Administrator is appointing the Task Force and to remove one of the HQ people from the Task Force."

But when it came time to finalize the Oct. 16, 2015, press release announcing the task force, only a small group of top officials weighed in on the final language of the release. Those included Hedman, Meiburg, Kopocis, Office of Research and Development Deputy Assistant Administrator Thomas Burke, Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water Director Peter Grevatt, acting Associate Administrator for the Office of Congressional & Intergovernmental Relations Nichole DiStefano, and EPA press officials Liz Purchia and Melissa Harrison.

Former Michigan DEQ Director Wyant and then-Flint Mayor Walling only had a half-hour heads-up before the press release went public.

"We will be issuing the attached press release in about 30 minutes — it describes the Task Force that we discussed yesterday. If you would like to talk further, I will be available this afternoon. Thanks, Susan," the brief notice said.

Hedman also balked at Harrison’s idea to make acting Deputy Regional Administrator Robert Kaplan the spokesman for the task force, suggesting he wasn’t good at interviews.

"Bob is definitely not in a position to do these," Hedman told Harrison after viewing live interviews of Kaplan.

As 2015 neared its end and public outrage over the Flint crisis mounted, Hedman seemed increasingly worried about her office’s appearance.

"According to the EPA website, the Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force hasn’t done anything since November 10th. … I suggest that we update the website asap, using the information about Task Force activities," she told Kaplan and other staffers on Dec. 23, 2015. "Also, we need to designate someone to be in charge of keeping the Task Force web page up to date."

Hedman was also irritated at MSNBC’s "Rachel Maddow Show" for referring to Wurfel’s description of Del Toral as a "rogue employee." She was worried that the reference to Del Toral as a "whistleblower" would remind the public of Region 5’s sexual harassment scandal that sparked hearings in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (Greenwire, Sept. 2, 2015).

"Our review of EPA actions in Flint show that the so-called whistleblower/rogue employee was acting under the direction of and with the support of EPA management when he tested water at three residences in Flint and prepared a report summarizing his findings," Hedman wrote on Dec. 30, 2015, weeks before her resignation. "I personally objected to MDEQ management and the Governor’s office when they called this R5 staffer a ‘rogue employee.’"

Purchia assured Hedman that she would help her.

"We’ll work with your comms staff on this moving forward," she responded.

Click here to read the emails.