Jordan Candler / March 17, 2016

EPA Washes Its Hands of Flint Debacle

Gina McCarthy is trying to exonerate her agency of wrongdoing.

In Flint, Michigan, the blame game over the city’s corroded infrastructure is in full swing. Republicans say the EPA is primarily at fault for knowing that tainted water was going into residents’ homes and responding with nothing more than a shoulder shrug. The EPA, meanwhile, claims the state is actually at fault. Here’s what Gina McCarthy argues in a Washington Post op-ed:

> The crisis is the result of a state-appointed emergency manager deciding that, to save money, Flint would stop purchasing treated drinking water from a source it relied on for 50 years and instead switch to an untreated source. The state of Michigan approved that decision, and it did so without requiring corrosion control. These decisions resulted in Flint residents being exposed to dangerously high levels of lead.

> Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Congress gives states primary responsibility for enforcing drinking water rules for the nation’s approximately 152,000 water systems, but the Environmental Protection Agency has oversight authority. The EPA’s relationship with states under the act is usually a strong and productive partnership. But looking back on Flint, it is clear that, from day one, Michigan did not act as a partner. The state’s interactions with us were dismissive, misleading and unresponsive. The EPA’s regional office was also provided with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information. As a result, EPA staff members were unable to understand the scope of the lead problem until more than a year after the switch to untreated water. Michigan did not act with a sense of urgency to treat the system and inform the public in ways we have come to expect from our state partners. While we were repeatedly and urgently telling the state to do so, looking back, we missed opportunities late last summer to get our concerns onto the public’s radar.

The truth is far more nuanced. Hot Air offers this astute rebuttal: “It’s absolutely true that the state … made the initial decision to switch water supplies and it turned out to be a disastrous one. But the failure there was through a lack of foresight and the result of the law of unintended consequences. It was, in short, a mistake. … But the EPA played a far more sinister role. Rather than a bunch of bureaucrats trying to save a buck, they’re supposed to be the experts in the science of these matters. And they knew about the danger for eight months. They could have told the Governor. They could have told the mayor. They could have alerted the press so they could tell everyone to stop drinking the water. And they did nothing. But all McCarthy has to say about that part of the crime is, we missed opportunities late last summer to get our concerns onto the public’s radar.

Try as she might, McCarthy shouldn’t be allowed to exonerate her agency of wrongdoing. The best case scenario for the EPA is that both it and the state of Michigan were complicit in creating the situation. The more realistic scenario is the EPA — which we remind you is ostensibly tasked with protecting us from environmental hazards — did very little to rectify the situation knowing full well what was at stake. If the agency wants to wash its hands, there’s plenty of toxic water available in Flint.

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