Did a Bureaucratic Fog Envelop the Flint Water Crisis?

Posted on April 23, 2019 by Ronald R. Janke

The Flint water crisis began in April 2014 when the City of Flint switched its source of drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River without installing corrosion control treatment to protect against lead and other chemicals leaching from pipes into tap water.  The need for corrective action was elevated on September 24, 2015, when a Flint pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, released her finding that the number of young children with elevated blood lead levels had increased 90 percent after the Flint’s water supply was switched.  In her book, What the Eyes Don’t See (2018), Dr. Hanna-Attisha plaintively and repeatedly asks why the regulators didn’t do something earlier to protect the children, noting “It was their job.” 

The US EPA’s Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) addressed Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s question in two reports released in 2016 and 2018.  The 2016 report concludes that by June 2015 “EPA Region V had sufficient information and authority to issue an Emergency Order but did not.”  The Region V Administrator did issue an Emergency Administrative Order under the Safe Drinking Water Act to the State of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the City of Flint on January 16, 2016, one day after President Obama declared a federal state of emergency for the City of Flint, and three months after Flint had switched to a source of water with corrosion control treatment.

The 2018 OIG report concludes that “Management Weaknesses Delayed Response to the Flint Water Crisis.” It blamed ineffective communications, ineffective assessment of risk, confused oversight roles, and a failure to use existing authority. The report recommended that EPA “strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the agency’s response to drinking water contamination emergencies.”  Notably, the report did not find that the delayed federal response resulted from factors that are commonly blamed when federal agencies fail to act – lack of authority, standards, money, personnel or other resources.   Existing personnel ultimately issued an emergency order under long-existing legal authority.   The cause of the problem and the risk of ingesting lead were recognizable -- Dr. Hanna-Attisha was immediately apprehensive about lead ingestion when a former EPA employee told her that Flint's water lacked corrosion control treatment.  Lack of concern for environmental justice seems absent, as the Obama EPA Administration widely publicized protecting low-income and minority communities, like Flint, from toxic contamination to be an agency priority.

Rather, the OIG reports suggest the Flint water crisis was enveloped in a bureaucratic fog which prevented EPA employees from seeing the urgency of the problem with enough clarity to take prompt and effective corrective action.  The fog included patterns of unfruitful extended inter- and intra-agency and inter-governmental discussions, deference, disagreements and indecision.  For example, in February 2015 EPA received six-months of lead monitoring data in which the 90th percentile of results exceeded the Practical Quantitation Limit (PQL), which by rule required Flint to optimize corrosion control treatment.  At the same time, EPA was concerned that Flint’s lead sampling protocol was biasing lead results lower.  In April 2015 EPA learned that Flint did not have corrosion control treatment in place.  In July 2015 EPA informed MDEQ that Flint had been required to provide corrosion control treatment, and the Region V Administrator advised Flint’s Mayor that EPA would “work with” the City on lead issues.  Two weeks later, EPA received a second six-months of drinking water monitoring data revealing even higher lead levels.  With MDEQ disputing that corrosion control treatment was required at Flint, Region V agreed in August 2015 to request a legal opinion from the EPA Office of Water, but it did not submit an official request until September 30, 2015.  In response, the Office of Water, without mentioning Flint, issued not a legal opinion, but a guidance memo in November 2015.  On several occasions in September 2015, the Region V administrator contacted the MDEQ, the Mayor of Flint, the EPA Administrator, and the EPA Office of Research and Development urging a variety of protective actions.   

This bureaucratic fog also contributed to EPA’s inability to react to citizen complaints about the Flint water supply.   Between May 2014 and January 2016 when the EPA Emergency Administrative Order was issued, EPA Region V received 87 complaints about Flint drinking water conditions, 30 of which raised concerns about lead.  Generally, EPA staff responded to these lead complaints with form letters recommending that citizens contact the MDEQ or the Flint water department.  Six responses took over a year to issue, and the OIG found no response to 11 lead complaints.  Region V staff did not see these complaints as indicative of a problem in Flint, and certainly not a pressing one.  In sum, the bureaucratic fog that impaired the federal response to the Flint water crisis is noteworthy not just in the context of how EPA operates but also as to the broader contemporary concern over the existence of a Deep State that subjugates public concerns to its own needs, processes and schedules.

Technicians or Politicians—Whom to Believe?

Posted on February 19, 2016 by Jeffrey Haynes

Amid the finger-pointing, forced resignations, and mea culpas, a question has hovered over the Flint water crisis. What did staff at the Flint water plant say before the switch to Flint River water? 

For months, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have admitted mistakes but never quite explained why Flint switched from Lake Huron water to Flint River water without prior pilot studies. Critics assailed the saving-costs-at-the-expense-of-the-public-health attitude. Apologists apologized and promised remedial measures. But until last weekend, we did not know what the engineers and technicians who operate the Flint water plant thought of the switch.

On February 13, the Detroit Free Press reported that the Flint water lab supervisor questioned the switch. One week before the grandiose public ceremony celebrating the new era for Flint, the lab supervisor told DEQ he needed time to train staff and update monitoring to be ready to use Flint River water. He complained that higher-ups seemed to have their own agenda.

Like many members of this College, I have spent my career fighting the regulator attitude that “we’re the government experts—trust us” and being dismayed when courts blindly defer to an agency. But when faced with a choice, should we believe agency staff, or politicians and their flappers (see Gulliver’s Travels)? We should start by considering the views of the technical folks who take seriously their jobs to protect publichealth. We might get better policy.

 

From the Detroit Free Press, February 18, 2016


Flint: Pb or not Pb, that is the Question

Posted on February 11, 2016 by Paul Seals

There is no safe blood lead level in children.

In following the inexplicable regulatory missteps in the Flint public water supply debacle, I could not help but think of the progress that has been made in removing lead from the environment and out of our children’s blood.  In spending my professional career addressing environmental issues and problems from a state, federal and private practice perspective, I often have wondered what difference does it make.   In the case of lead, we can actually measure our progress and success.

As a teenager, I filled my ‘54 Ford with regular leaded gasoline.   Lead was not only in gasoline, it was everywhere.  Recognizing the significant and often irreversible health effects of lead, regulatory programs were initiated at the federal, state, and local levels to “get the lead out.”  The implementation of these programs reduced or eliminated lead from gasoline, foods and food packaging, house paint, water pipes, plumbing fixtures, and solder used in plumbing and drink cans.  

Did these programs work?  In 1978, approximately 13.5 million children aged 1-5 had blood lead levels (BLLs) greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) of blood, which was until recently the level of concern recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).   The recommended level is now 5 ug/dL.  Also, back in the 70s, the average BLL was approximately 15 ug/dL.  Black children and children living in low-income families were at greater risk.     

We have come a long way from the 70s.  The average BLL in children dropped to 1.4 ug/dL by 2008.  Below is a table graphically demonstrating this dramatic decrease in BLLs.  The table is based on data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971 – 2008, taken from a CDC report, Lead in Drinking Water and Human Blood Lead Levels in the United States, August 10, 2012.

As we beat ourselves up over the mistakes in Flint, we should take a moment to reflect on and be re-energized by the demonstrable success of these regulatory programs.   What we have done has made a difference!  Flint reminds us that more must still be done.

 

Timeline of lead poisoning prevention policies and blood lead levels in children aged 1–5 years, by year — National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971–2008

"We All Let the Citizens of Flint Down"

Posted on February 4, 2016 by Alexandra Dapolito Dunn

With busloads of concerned citizens from Flint and nearby cities gathered around the Rayburn House Office Building on February 3, environmental regulators and science experts appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee) to give testimony regarding lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s public drinking water.  As detailed in this recent NPR podcast, well worth the 40 minute listen, between 6,000 and 12,000 children are estimated to have elevated blood lead levels following the City’s drinking water source change from Detroit water to water from the Flint River in 2014. 

How could a crisis like this have happened? While at first water policy groups were quick to highlight the nation’s aging water infrastructure and investment gap – EPA’s most recent estimate is that $384 billion is needed to assure safe drinking water from 2013 to 2030 – and certainly lead pipes to homes in older communities is a costly replacement problem – at the root of Flint was classic government dysfunction combined with assessments of safety that make sense to regulators but perhaps not to everyday people. At the hearing Joel Beauvais, acting Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water faced questions from Committee members about the Agency’s delayed response to the situation, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s acting Director Keith Creagh was to explain why state officials did not act to address contamination immediately. Both officials attributed the crisis to breakdown in communication between the agencies that inhibited officials’ swift action. What happened in Flint “was avoidable and should have never happened,” according to Beauvais; while Creagh’s testimony stated that “[w]e all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it’s the city, the state, or the federal government… We all let the citizens of Flint down.”

The hearing ultimately took on a forward look, noting a reaffirmed commitment to protecting public health. “We do have clear standards. We do have clear accountability, so we have a clear path forward, said Creagh. “We are working in conjunction with the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”  Beauvais noted “it is imperative that Michigan, other states, EPA and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide work together and take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”

EPA and Michigan state and local officials are now in non-stop mode to ensure that prompt, concerted efforts are taken to address public health hazards. Members of Congress are introducing bills to fund Flint’s systems and to aid the affected citizens.  Even philanthropic groups are stepping in.  EPA’s Inspector General is doing a deep dive into the Agency’s response, Michigan Governor Snyder is seeking answers, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into criminal aspects of the matter. Flint’s drinking water will get better – and yet the affected population may never fully recover from their excessive lead exposures.  

The #FlintWaterCrisis is a sober reminder of the need to keep the nexus between environmental quality regulation and public health protection very tight.  As professionals in the environmental field, we cannot fear having frank conversations in the open about risks – and the importance of taking precautionary steps – when human health is at issue.