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Tap water in a Flint hospital on Oct. 16, 2015. (Photo: Joyce Zhu / Flintwaterstudy.org)

Tap water in a Flint hospital on Oct. 16, 2015. (Photo: Joyce Zhu / Flintwaterstudy.org)

The EPA's Hush-Hush Response to the Flint Water Crisis

'At that point, you do not just have smoke, you have a three-alarm fire and should respond immediately,' charges water researcher

Lauren McCauley

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for months knew about the poisoning of the Flint water supply and, rather than raise alarm and stop residents from drinking the lead-tainted water, took a backseat on the matter.

The Detroit News reported late Tuesday that federal officials began making inquiries in February and the region's top EPA official, Susan Hedman, confirmed to the newspaper this week that as early as April the agency knew about the lack of corrosion controls in the water system.

According to the reporting:

An EPA water expert, Miguel Del Toral, identified potential problems with Flint’s drinking water in February, confirmed the suspicions in April and summarized the looming problem in a June internal memo. The state decided in October to change Flint’s drinking water source from the corrosive Flint River back to the Detroit water system. 

Critics have charged Hedman with attempting to keep the memo’s information in-house and downplaying its significance.

Federal officials for months engaged in a bureaucratic, behind-the-scenes "battle" with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) "over whether Flint needed to use chemical treatments to keep lead lines and plumbing connections from leaching into drinking water," the paper reports. Hedman argued that it was not the "role" of the federal agency to regulate local water operations.

All the while, residents of the poor, largely African American community blindly continued to drink the poisoned water. In September, researchers at nearby Hurley Children's Hospital discovered that children living in two Flint zip codes had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, whose work helped uncover the contamination, told The Detroit News that as soon as the danger became apparent, the public should have been alerted.

"At that point, you do not just have smoke, you have a three-alarm fire and should respond immediately," Edwards said. "There was no sense of urgency at any of the relevant agencies."

The water supply became contaminated in 2014 after its source was switched in a cost-saving measure from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to water from the Flint River treated at the city facility.

In Flint, outrage over the crisis and the alleged cover-up has reached a boiling point. Local students have launched a petition calling for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder, which comes on the heels of a separate call for his arrest.

Late Tuesday, Snyder activated the National Guard and requested help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate responses to the crisis and assist in bottled water distribution—initiatives the city's residents panned as "too little, too late."


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