The federal bureaucrat who has been repeatedly named in connection with the Flint water crisis has offered her resignation, but is the very same official who ordered on the very same day that the Environmental Protection Agency will begin collecting and testing water sample for lead. Regional administrator Susan Hedman of the EPA Region 5 resigned on January 21 in the midst of public outrage over what Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder has said is a failure of government at all levels, in the wake of revelations that Flint’s water system exposed the approximately 100,000 residents of the city to toxic levels of lead.
Hedman is due to leave her post on February 1. According to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Hedman resigned so that the EPA can remain focused solely on the restoration of Flint’s drinking water. While the state of Michigan has pledged to cooperate with the federal agency, the new director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality cited what Michigan calls “legal and factual concerns” about an order the EPA issued that criticizes state and local officials and demanding them to take specified actions. Creagh said that Michigan “has complied with every recent demand” issued by EPA while pointing out that the federal government’s order “does not reference the tens of millions of dollars expended by…the state for water filters, drinking water, testing and medical services. Creagh’s predecessor resigned as local and national outrage flared.
The final version of Del Tora’s EPA report deleted the expert’s concerns that Flint was not following federal regulations on corrosion control and lead content. The failure to use adequate corrosion control by Flint has been linked to the leaching of lead from aging water lines and fittings. Gov. Snyder and others have pointed out that some of the water lines in the city are at least 100 years old in a city where revenues have fallen since the pull-out of General Motors in the 1980s.
Del Toral has said that he was stunned that Flint was not using corrosion control to lessen the impact of the water on water service lines and indoor plumbing. “In my head,” said Del Toral to The Flint Journal, “I didn’t believe that. I thought: that can’t be true…that’s so basic. That’s not possible.” Del Toral could not say why it took federal and state bureaucrats nearly one year to take action to protect the citizens of Flint in what is now considered a national emergency.
EPA ordered that Michigan provide specific data and implement EPA recommendations. It also demanded that the state come up with a website within five days and reveal all plans, reports, water sampling results, and progress reports.
EPA official Hedman resigned over criticism for having decided against releasing a June 2015 report that demonstrated unacceptably high levels of lead in Flint’s water. Research on the issue was led by EPA water expert Miguel Del Toral. Tests showed the Flint’s drinking water was not being treated for lead removal, and that tests by the state were not detecting the problems. Complicating the problem was that when officials from Flint called on Hedman to provide information about the water, Hedman said the EPA report was incomplete. Hedman said at the time, “The preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency.” “When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the City and MDEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) — and MDEQ will be responsible for following up with the City.”
Michigan’s Republican Governor Snyder used much of his State of the State address to speak about the Flint water crisis. He recently told the residents of Flint, “I let you down,’ thereby setting a tone of accountability while noting that local, state and federal officials were also part of the failure. Snyder’s spokesman said “As Gov. Snyders said in his State of the State Address earlier this week, government at all levels failed the people of Flint. He accepted accountability for that, and noted that federa, state and local leaders broke the trust of the people. We should all focus on the needs of Flint…”
It is not known how much time will be needed until Flint’s water is safe to drink. Del Toral said that a lot of damage has been done and that progress will come steadily. Currently, the city is working on plans to boost the level of phosphates in the water supply so as to rebuild a protective coating on the inside of transmission pipes and thus prevent the leaching of lead.
The latest report from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality show that 8 percent of the 853 water samples taken between September 29, 2015 and January 15, 2015 showed lead levels exceeding 15 parts per billion. That is the level set by the federal government that requires additional corrosion control in water systems. So far, Michigan has distributed more than 23,000 test kits. However, whether many will be returned for analysis is another story. According to Prof. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech University, who led an independent study of Flint’s water, said that these numbers appear to be lower than those he obtained in August 2015.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, a lead level of 50 parts per billion is a cause of “concern” in samples taken from children. However, the CDC also notes that even at 5 parts per billion lead can impair child development. The CDC website says, “Today at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead. There are approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.
“No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized. CDC’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program is committed to the Healthy People 2020 goals of eliminating blood lead levels ≥ 10 µg/dL and differences in average risk based on race and social class as public health concerns. The program is part of the National Center for Environmental Health's Division of Emergency and Environmental Health Services.”
While the Obama administration has given Michigan a loan guarantee of $80 million, and a grant of $5 million, replacing Flint’s water system may be prohibitive. Estimates run into more than $1 billion to replace more than 500 miles of service pipes in a city that continues to experience demographic collapse, crime, and political infighting.