U.S. EPA’s Region 5 office tiptoed around Michigan’s environmental agency to avoid conflict on the lead contamination issue in Flint, Mich., even questioning whether to issue a violation for failing to prevent corrosion to the city’s lead pipes, emails show.
Documents released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee yesterday show an agency that seemed more intent on maintaining a relationship with the state than enforcing environmental law.
As EPA employees began to realize in the summer of 2015 that Flint’s public drinking water was not treated to reduce corrosion before coursing through the city’s network of pipes and into homes, they discussed in an email chain how to address "this situation in Flint."
"I’ll bet that the State will take this personally since they are responsible for the City of Flint’s actions; which isn’t a bad thing, but they may get VERY defensive," wrote Jennifer Crooks, Michigan program manager in Region 5’s groundwater and drinking water division, in a July 9 email. "We need to move forward and work with the State as our partner … I don’t see the benefit in rubbing their nose in the fact that we’re right, and they’re wrong."
Crooks added that she saw little use in requiring the state to issue a "Treatment Technique" — or TT — violation, which occurs when a water system fails to treat its water in the way that EPA prescribes.
"If the State/City agree to issue public education on how citizens must properly flush their taps, I’m wondering what the benefit would be to force the State to issue a TT violation to Flint," wrote Crooks.
Janet Kuefler, program leader for the drinking water division, agreed.
"I think focusing on what the system and local health department … or [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] can do in the short term to assess the extent of the issue and offer remediation options that can be quickly implemented, if needed, is a sound approach," she wrote.
The sore thumb in the conversation was Region 5 regulations manager Miguel Del Toral, who wrote a well-publicized memo last year to alert his supervisor of alarmingly high lead levels in Flint residents’ tap water.
"I very much disagree with not issuing a TT violation here," wrote Del Toral. "If you open this door for Flint … other systems elsewhere inside/outside [Region 5] are going to want the same treatment."
The fallout from Del Toral’s June 24 memo at EPA was intense. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s spokesman called him a "rogue employee," and former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling (D) sought to downplay his comments by calling him "one individual staff person" at EPA. Former EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman, who stepped down from her post in January as a result of the crisis, maintained that Del Toral’s memo was not properly vetted by the agency and therefore did not reflect EPA’s views.
Meanwhile, Hedman vehemently denied silencing Del Toral at yesterday’s oversight panel hearing (Greenwire, March 15).
The chill was apparent to Del Toral. In a July 9, 2015, email, he questioned a colleague’s decision not to allow him to attend an environmental justice meeting in Milwaukee.
"It almost sounds like I’m to be stuck in a corner holding up a potted plant because of Flint," he wrote to Rita Bair, an official in the drinking water office. "One mis-step in 27+ years here and people lose their minds."
Bair assured him the decision had nothing to do with Flint.
"Right now I believe there is more important work for you to spend your time on," said Bair, adding that the conference appeared to have little to do with the issue of lead in water.
Last September, results from Virginia Tech’s Flint Water Study began pouring in. The survey showed lead levels in Flint were in some cases thousands of times higher than the legal limit. In a Sept. 22, 2015, email, Del Toral faulted Region 5’s efforts to appease state and local officials as the crux of the crisis.
"At every stage of this process, it seems that we spend more time trying to maintain State/local relationships than we do trying to protect the children," he wrote. "You don’t have to drop a bowling ball off of every building in every city to prove that gravity (and science) will work the same way everywhere. It’s basic chemistry."
The emails also show a reluctance from EPA to use the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund — money that the federal agency gives states to loan to communities for water infrastructure repairs — for water filters. Officials worried that the money would be misspent in a cash-strapped city like Flint, where for years water rate revenues funded other public works projects.
"I’m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for. At least without a better understanding of where all that money went," wrote Debbie Baltazar, chief of state and tribal programs for Region 5, in a Sept. 24, 2015, email.
Brent Fewell, former deputy chief of EPA’s Office of Water in the George W. Bush administration, has described EPA’s conundrum in Flint as the "Goldilocks" syndrome, in which the agency is first criticized for doing too much, then too little: "Too hard, too soft. You have to find the right balance" (Greenwire, Jan. 29).