The U.S. congressional committee investigating the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan recently issued its conclusions after a year-long investigation, citing failures at all levels of government.
Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent two letters in late December reporting the committee’s findings to the chairmen of the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations and the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
“The committee found significant problems at Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) [Lansing, Michigan], and unacceptable delays in the Environmental Protection Agency’s [EPA] [Washington, DC] response to the crisis,” Chaffetz wrote to the appropriations committee. “The committee also found that the federal regulatory framework is so outdated that it sets up states to fail.”
High levels of lead were detected in drinking water in Flint homes in early 2015, and corrosion of the water distribution system’s service pipes and solder was the cause of lead leaching into the water, according to researchers who studied the situation.1
On a state level, Chaffetz cited the MDEQ’s failure to order the required corrosion controls on lead service lines when Flint changed its water source in 2014 from the treated system in Detroit, Michigan to the local Flint River as part of a plan to cut costs.
“MDEQ’s persistent refusal to acknowledge and respond to the emerging lead crisis throughout 2015 made the situation worse,” Chaffetz wrote.
Flint switched back to its original water supply in late 2015, but it was too late to reverse the damage to the pipes.
In the letter to the energy and commerce committee, Chaffetz said MDEQ struggled for several months to interpret the law on corrosion control before admitting it failed to properly follow the relevant guidelines.
The oversight committee’s ranking Democrat, Maryland representative Elijah Cummings, placed much of the blame from the Flint crisis on Michigan governor Rick Snyder, accusing the state of not acting more quickly and precisely when informed of the problems.
Chaffetz, however, did not single the governor out for blame. Instead, in the letters, Chaffetz wrote that it was “administrative mismanagement” within the city of Flint that forced the state to intervene in the city’s affairs and attempt to save it.
EPA’s Role in the Crisis
Chaffetz’s letters were also sharply critical of the EPA over various aspects of the crisis response.
For example, Chaffetz highlighted an October 2016 report from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General that said the EPA had the authority and information needed to force corrective actions in Flint seven months before an emergency order was issued.
The letters also included recommendations to examine any ambiguities in the oversight provisions of the U.S. Safe Water Drinking Act and for the EPA’s inspector general to look into why the agency has delayed for years an update to the federal Lead and Copper Rule on levels allowed in drinking water.
He further criticized the EPA for its attempt to discount testimony from Miguel Del Torro, a water quality expert in the Region 5 area, which includes Flint.
“Congress put EPA in this role as a backstop in the event that a state or territory failed to provide safe drinking water,” Chaffetz wrote. “In this case, however, even the federal safeguard failed Flint’s residents.”
Chaffetz also cited the EPA’s estimate of ~$384 billion needed by 2030 to improve U.S. water infrastructure as a reason for the appropriations committee to be cautious on its spending allocations elsewhere, including on projects related to climate change.
Where Flint Stands Today
Despite the bureaucratic squabbles, the U.S. Senate did approve a financial aid package in December 2016 that could provide Flint with up to $170 million to aid in the water crisis and the city’s recovery.
The $10-billion Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on December 16, 2016, includes a provision that would make Flint the only community eligible for $100 million in funding from the new U.S. Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund—since a federal emergency was declared by Obama for the area in January 2016.
Flint mayor Karen Weaver says the funds will help the city in its efforts to replace more lead-tainted pipes. That work started in early 2016, and recent test results have indeed shown improvement in the lead levels of Flint’s water—though the use of a filter is still recommended.
Other parts of the aid package include $50 million allocated to fund federal programs including assistance to pregnant women, new mothers, and public education on the dangers of lead exposure.
“I am thrilled that the U.S. Senate has passed a $170 million package that will help the City of Flint recover after state and federal actions left its drinking water system poisoned by lead,” Weaver says. “Although we have waited far longer for this help than expected, we are grateful to the Senate and the House for providing the assistance that will help Flint residents deal with this unprecedented health crisis and gain a brighter future.”
1 K. Riggs Larsen, “The Science Behind It: Corrosion Caused Lead-Tainted Water in Flint, Michigan.” Materials Performance. June 7, 2016. http://www.materialsperformance.com/articles/material-selection-design/2016/06/the-science-behind-it-corrosion-caused-lead-tainted-water-in-flint-michigan. January 11, 2017.