Sluggish response to Flint crisis doomed EPA chief

By Kevin Bogardus | 01/26/2016 01:27 PM EST

Susan Hedman, head of U.S. EPA’s Chicago-based regional office, worked hard and demanded the same from her staff. But she’s now on her way out, caught up in the city of Flint, Mich.’s ongoing drinking water crisis.

Susan Hedman, head of U.S. EPA’s Chicago-based regional office, worked hard and demanded the same from her staff. But she’s now on her way out, caught up in the city of Flint, Mich.’s ongoing drinking water crisis.

George Czerniak, director of the air and radiation division for EPA Region 5, said Hedman held high expectations for the office, which covers six states, including Michigan.

"She expected a lot, but no less than what she expected of herself," Czerniak said. "She easily was the hardest-working regional administrator we ever had. She held us to a high standard, but she held herself to a high standard."


As Hedman leaves EPA, with her resignation effective Feb. 1, questions remain over her slow response to dangerous lead levels found in Flint’s drinking water supply.

Susan Hedman
EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman. | Photo courtesy of EPA.

Hedman had a long history in environmental law before coming to EPA. She served as environmental counsel to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D). Hedman was Madigan’s chief negotiator for litigation and legislation on environmental issues.

Hedman also was a legal officer for the U.N. Security Council, tasked with assessing environmental damage from oil fires in Kuwait related to the Persian Gulf War of the 1990s.

In an email last week to Region 5 employees announcing Hedman’s resignation, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy noted she was "a strong advocate" for protecting the Great Lakes as well as helping to redevelop brownfields and clean up Superfund sites.

"She has brought a great emphasis on the pollution of the Great Lakes," said John Linc Stine, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in an interview. "From my perspective, her legacy will be the focus on the restoration of the contaminated areas in the Great Lakes."

In a statement to Greenwire, Hedman said she had the honor of leading the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal government task force designed to clean up the region, while at EPA.

"We are already making a visible difference at project sites all around the Great Lakes — and as a result there is broad bi-partisan support for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative," Hedman said.

In addition, Hedman said she prioritized the cleanup of contaminated sites. She said her Region 5 staff "has also done an impressive job handling some very challenging emergency responses — especially during the Enbridge oil spill on the Kalamazoo River in 2010."

A separate email from Bob Kaplan, the Region 5 deputy taking on Hedman’s job on an acting basis at McCarthy’s request, credited Hedman’s "tireless leadership," along with the office staff’s hard work, for pushing corrosion controls to stop more lead from seeping into Flint’s drinking water and shifting the city’s water source to Lake Huron rather than the Flint River.

Late response

Nevertheless, many observers see Hedman’s response as tragically late, having known months ago about problems with Flint’s drinking water, yet downplaying any cause for concern at the time.

In an email making the rounds in several news reports, Hedman told Flint Mayor Dayne Walling that an EPA report leaked in July 2015 detailing high lead levels in the city’s water was a "preliminary draft," and "it would be premature to draw any conclusions based on that draft."

Miguel Del Toral, the EPA staffer who authored that report, told Michigan Radio during an interview last week that he got pushback from the agency once his report went public.

"I saw what was coming, and I guess the inability to affect that was really stressful," Del Toral said.

Region 5’s front-line employees didn’t see much of their chief. They perceived her as someone who preferred to work down through the office’s chain of command, said Jeffrey Bratko, an environmental scientist and enforcement officer at EPA’s Chicago branch who retired in January 2015.

"She would rarely walk the floor," Bratko said. "I don’t think people felt that comfortable with going to Susan with problems."

Bratko, a former American Federation of Government Employees steward at the regional office, said he wasn’t too shocked that the agency was slow to respond to Flint’s growing water crisis.

"My experience was she edited things down. She wanted things brief, and a lot of the details had to be removed," Bratko said about Hedman. "I’m not entirely surprised at what happened. You had an attorney running an office doing technical work."

Czerniak disputed the notion that Hedman was closed off from staff.

"Dr. Hedman always had her eye on what was best for the environment. She wanted to know about potential threats to the environment and public health, and she counted on people to bring those complaints up through management," Czerniak said. "It was good to work in that environment. We always felt we had that support in the air program."

Last week, EPA began implementing an emergency order requiring Flint to start a new round of water quality testing and publish the data online (Greenwire, Jan. 22).

In addition, the agency’s inspector general has started an investigation into how EPA responded to the drinking water crisis (Greenwire, Jan. 22).

‘Management did whatever they wanted’

Hedman’s exit is another blemish for a regional office that has often been the center of controversy in recent years.

Last July, EPA’s Region 5 was the subject of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) blasted the agency for its inaction in response to allegations of a Chicago-based employee subjecting female co-workers to sexual harassment for nearly a decade (Greenwire, July 29, 2015).

In his prepared testimony, Ross Tuttle, formerly a Region 5 human capital officer, took the Chicago office’s leadership to task, including Hedman. Tuttle and other EPA employees told lawmakers about about raising sexual harassment concerns only to have senior managers retaliate against them.

"The good people are getting run over by all the nonsense," said Tuttle, now working at EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas. "Management did whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted whenever they wanted, and they didn’t really care who got hurt."

Czerniak said Hedman wouldn’t let such misbehavior to go on in the regional office. "Any implication she allowed a culture of harassment is just not true. She had no tolerance for that," Czerniak said.

Like the rest of the federal government, EPA has been rocked by pay freezes and budget cuts, as well as a government shutdown in 2013. In turn, morale among the agency’s employees has often been dour, though it has improved over the past year.

The Region 5 office has seemingly seen its morale rise, with the Partnership for Public Service awarding it an index score of 66 out of 100 for employee job satisfaction and commitment last year, climbing 9.1 points from its 2014 mark. Region 5’s score for morale last year, however, is still below what the office earned from the partnership for 2005 through 2012.

The Chicago branch had to undergo an extensive transition, along with the rest of EPA, as agency managers sought to buy out veteran staff and then went on a hiring spree over the past several years. That left many Region 5 employees "puzzled," according to Bratko.

"Why did we go through all that turnover, lose all that experience and knowledge? And then we went out and hired people to do the same job," Bratko said. "Morale continues to be an issue. People there feel uncomfortable."

Czerniak said the regional staff in Chicago feel under attack at the moment.

"People feel bad how things get attenuated, particularly during an election year. I would say people feel under attack from the outside," Czerniak said. "Yet they are still out there every day trying to make the environment better. It just makes the job difficult."

Hedman is not the first Region 5 chief to leave under a cloud of controversy. In 2008, Mary Gade was forced to resign as head of EPA’s Chicago office after months of fighting with Dow Chemical Co. over dioxin contamination surrounding its Midland, Mich., plant (Greenwire, May 2, 2008).

In an interview with Greenwire, Gade was critical of EPA’s response to the Flint drinking water crisis. She said that when her staff told her about reports of dioxin contamination, "it motivated me to do something."

"EPA is getting a pass, as far I am concerned. This stuff should have been done months ago," said Gade, referencing the agency’s emergency order. "When there’s potential for risk to public health of this magnitude, you have to quickly find out what’s going on and then take action."

Region 5 is an important office for the agency, overseeing EPA operations in industrial Midwestern states like Illinois, Michigan and Ohio and other parts of the Great Lakes region. Gade called it a tricky job, but said Hedman was well within in her power to act in response to the Flint crisis.

"In a large region, you are going to have big problems. The trick is how are you going to handle them," Gade said. "You have a lot of authority as a regional administrator, enough so to do something in this situation."

Now EPA workers are dealing with the aftermath of the drinking water crisis in Flint. Bratko, formerly of Region 5, said employees feel the scandal is not representative of how the office works.

"Employees don’t feel what happened is characteristic of how Region 5 operates. This one incident doesn’t give an accurate portrayal of that office, where people strive to always do the right thing," Bratko said.