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.



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