EPA Faces Fallout From Flint, Mich., Water Crisis
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Obama has ordered an inquiry into how the Environmental Protection Agency handles information that could affect public health. That's because the EPA was aware of problems with the tap water in Flint, Mich., as early as last April. Staffers knew that some residents had lead levels in their tap water that were dangerously high. But as Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reports, those concerns weren't made public.
LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: Lee-Ann Walters figured something was wrong with her tap water. Her twin boys got a rash every time they took a bath. Clumps of her daughter's hair fell out in the shower. This was a year ago, in the winter of 2014.
LEE-ANN WALTERS: We quit drinking the water in December when my 14-year-old got sick. And it started coming through our filter, out the kitchen sink brown.
SMITH: Back then, city and state officials repeatedly told people in the Flint the water was safe, but Walters didn't believe them, so she called the EPA's Midwest regional headquarters in Chicago. She talked to a guy named Miguel Del Toral. He's a program manager within the region's drinking water branch. When he heard from her, he started to poke around.
MIGUEL DEL TORAL: I'd received a call that the lead was coming from her plumbing and that she needed to hire a plumber.
SMITH: In older homes, the plumbing can lead to high lead levels. But the plumbing at the Walters' house was new, and it was plastic. Through her research, Walters discovered Flint wasn't treating its water properly. The city was not adding chemicals to the water that prevent lead from leeching from old underground pipes.
DEL TORAL: Even though she had told me that, I just - in my head, I was thinking, you know, that's not possible. You know, I couldn't believe that was true. I thought, there's a misunderstanding here or some kind of miscommunication. It took some prodding, but eventually, last April, the state admitted to Del Toral that Flint was not using any kind of corrosion control treatment - treatment that's required under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Del Toral was stunned. He told the state Flint should start treatment right away. But Michigan's environmental regulators disagreed. Susan Hedman is the federal EPA regional administrator in the Midwest.
SUSAN HEDMAN: The Safe Drinking Water Act puts states in the driver's seat.
SMITH: When we spoke in November, Hedman said the EPA could only advise, not force the state to do anything. In later June, Del Toral wrote his concerns about Flint in a draft report. He gave a copy to Walters, the Flint mom who had alerted him to her water problems because specific information about her water tests and her child's lead poisoning were in the report. It was Walters who gave it to the media. Hedman says she couldn't talk about the report back then because it wasn't finalized.
HEDMAN: So it put us in an awkward situation. I know we looked a bit tongue-tied.
SMITH: EPA's silence allowed state regulators to fill the communications void. In July, Brad Wurfel, who was Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality spokesman before he resigned, said this.
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BRAD WURFEL: Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.
SMITH: Wurfel said there was no broad problem in Flint. He called Del Toral a rogue employee, and the EPA said nothing. Emails show Hedman told the mayor of Flint at the time that Del Toral's report was only a draft, and no conclusion should be drawn from it. Meanwhile, people in Flint were still drinking water that was probably not safe to drink. Yesterday, Hedman submitted her resignation. White House press secretary Josh Earnest says President Obama has ordered an inquiry into how the EPA interacts with local government officials.
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JOSH EARNEST: We don't want a situation where the EPA is unnecessarily obstructed from being able to share information with the public that has a direct impact on the health, safety and well-being of the public.
SMITH: In Flint, people are relived that the government is finally taking their concerns seriously. But they also just want to know when their water will be safe to drink. For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.