Tag: Flint

EPA Knew, Part II

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where a criminally inept government contaminated the drinking water with lead and spent months pretending the problem didn’t exist. Now, the other shoe has dropped:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top Midwest official said her department knew as early as April about the lack of corrosion controls in Flint’s water supply — a situation that likely put residents at risk for lead contamination — but said her hands were tied in bringing the information to the public.

Starting with inquiries made in February, the federal agency battled Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality behind the scenes for at least six months over whether Flint needed to use chemical treatments to keep lead lines and plumbing connections from leaching into drinking water. The EPA did not publicize its concern that Flint residents’ health was jeopardized by the state’s insistence that such controls were not required by law.

Instead of moving quickly to verify the concerns or take preventative measures, federal officials opted to prod the DEQ to act, EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman told The Detroit News this week. Hedman said she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action, but it wasn’t completed until November.

The EPA’s point is that actual decision-making is made by the DEQ, a state-level agency. They mainly monitor and advise. But that doesn’t explain why they spent six months in bureaucratic tickle fight instead of, you know, telling a city of tens of thousands people that there water was poisonous.

This is the second time the EPA has stayed quiet on a massive ecological disaster as you may remember from last year’s mine blowout. Amazing, the EPA is standing by that decision.

The Democrats are in a huff to blame Snyder for this. And, to be fair, Snyder does deserve some blame. The decision to switch to river water was signed off on by the emergency manager and Snyder picked the emergency manager. Responsibility rolls upward.

But this is not exclusively or even mainly the fault of the governor or austerity or “free markets”. Snyder has released a trove of e-mails show that the DEQ concealed what was going on, from him and from the citizens of Flint. Dalmia walks us through how this was a failure at every level of government, not because of an emergency manager or austerity but because of incompetence, cover-up and malfeasance:

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency that is responsible for implementing federal EPA environmental standards and ensure water standards, ignored citizen concerns that there was something wrong with the water they were getting from the new Flint River water system.

The EPA required the DEQ to perform a faulty test to measure water quality that totally failed to catch the problem. That’s not all that the EPA did wrong, however. Even after it realized that the DEQ wasn’t taking a simple step necessary to prevent lead poisoning – namely adding phosphorous – it did absolutely nothing. It didn’t go public with this information; it didn’t warn residents that they should take steps to prevent themselves. It basically fiddled as Flint residents were getting poisoned. What’s even more infuriating? It would have cost less than $50,000 annually to add the phosphorous.

The local mayor was even worse than the EPA. If the EPA passively allowed residents to poison themselves, the mayor actively encouraged them to do so. He told them that there was nothing wrong with the water and they’d be wasting their “precious” money by buying bottled water. This, incidentally, was after GM stopped using this water because it was corroding auto parts.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services dismissed tests showing a spike in lead levels in blood tests of local residents after the switch to Flint River as a “seasonal anomaly.”

(The Mayor of Flint actually drank some of the water on TV to prove it was safe. Greg Branch has written another good explainer that breaks down what happened.)

You get it now, liberals? I know you hate Snyder. I know you hate Republicans. I know you hate the whole emergency manager thing. But this went a lot deeper than Snyder. He wasn’t the one who signed off on the switch and then spent months ignoring or deliberately covering up the problem. Quit using this an excuse to go after a governor you don’t like. Yes, he bears some responsibility. There may two people in this whole mess who don’t. But there are a lot of people who a lot more responsibility than Snyder. And most of them are Democrats.

Poisoning the Well

This story has been building up in my timeline for a while. But today, Orac has a thorough post on how the Flint, Michigan government poisoned children with lead in their water. You really should read the whole thing. It all started when Flint changed from using water from Lake Huron to using water from the Flint River.

What happened? There were higher concentrations of salt in Flint River water, which led to corrosion of the lead welds in the copper pipes that carried the water to the city. Detroit’s less corrosive water had flowed through the pipes for decades without a problem, but it didn’t take long after the switch was made in April 2014 for elevated lead content to be noticed. Why was the switch made? Here the story gets a bit complicated. In 2010, the Flint City Council voted to join the new Karegnondi Water Authority. Construction of a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint was begun and is scheduled to be completed in 2016. In April 2014, the emergency manager switched from purchasing treated Lake Huron water from Detroit, as it had done for 50 years, to getting water from the Flint River as a temporary measure until the pipeline was completed. The reason? When Flint joined the Karegnondi Water Authority, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department terminated its 35-year contract with the city. To continue to purchase Detroit water, Flint would have to renegotiate a short-term contract, at a higher cost. Basically, switching to river water saved Flint between $5 million and $7 million a year. That’s why the emergency manager did it.

Residents started complaining immediately about the quality of the water and health effects from using it. Tests started showing levels of lead in the water way beyond anything safe and doctors reported a doubling of children with lead poisoning. And the city and the state … buried the story.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality manipulated the samples tested for lead to eliminate the samples with the highest concentration and thereby produce the result that it wanted: The appearance that the water was safe. It’s true that Flint was in bad financial shape. It’s debatable that its financial situation was helped by Governor Snyder appointing a series of his cronies to run the city, one of whom caused this catastrophe in his desire to save money. His successors perpetuated the damage.

Here’s the even bigger kicker. Even using the Flint River water, the City of Flint could have prevented the corrosion of its copper and lead pipes relatively inexpensively:

Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech who has been testing Flint water, says treatment could have corrected much of the problem early on — for as little as $100 a day — but officials in the city of 100,000 people didn’t take action.

“There is no question that if the city had followed the minimum requirements under federal law that none of this would have happened,” said Edwards, who obtained the Muchmore email through a Michigan Freedom of Information Act request.

Lead is a big reason I favor environmental regulation. For decades, the lead industry insisted that lead in our water, our air and our homes was not harmful. They didn’t do this because they were cackling evil monsters. They did this because they were human. And humans find it very easy to persuade themselves that the wrong thing is the right thing when there’s money or pride at stake.

But this — and the massive mine blowout last year — are an important reminder that government can’t be trusted either. It will happily hide environmental damage to save money, to save pride or to advance an agenda. It will happily tell people befouled land is safe to build on, as they did at Love Canal. it will happily pretend an environmental disasters isn’t happening, as it did with the Gold King Mine. It will happily grant environmental regulation exemptions to business buddies if they “bring jobs” to a state.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This is the question we must all answer. The answer in Flint should be a thorough independent investigation, the unelection of everyone even remotely connected with this, and criminal prosecution of those who covered it up. I’m sick and tired of politicians and their cronies being able to literally poison children and get away with it. If someone were dumping lead into Flint’s drinking water, we’d prosecute them. I won’t believe that this problem is being taken seriously until people end up in jail.