A new report lays blame on all levels of government for the water crisis that has gripped Flint, Michigan for more than four years, and which safety advocates say has yet to be fully resolved.
As the Trump administration urges budget cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency’s inspector general found that the EPA responded far too slowly to a regional office’s concerns about Flint’s water after tests showed high levels of lead in April 2015. The discovery came a year after the city began using the Flint River as a drinking water source, switching from Detroit’s water system to save money.
The EPA did not immediately publicize the findings, urging Michigan officials to address the problem and failing to oversee the response.
“While oversight authority is vital, its absence can contribute to a catastrophic situation,” EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins said in a statement. “This report urges the EPA to strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs now so that the agency can act quickly in times of emergency.”
Michigan was also found to have responded far to slowly to the Flint crisis, which began due to high levels of lead in the city’s river. State officials did not acknowledge the toxicity of the water, waiting until September 2016 to shift the city’s drinking water source back to Detroit, after researchers at Virginia Tech compared some water samples from the river to “toxic waste.”
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Local officials were also blamed by the inspector general for ignoring residents’ concerns over the unusual taste, color, and smell of the drinking water.
“People have realized they’ve been lied to, and EPA knew about this, and the state knew about this,” Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who tested the water in 2016, told the Washington Post at the time. “What you really have as it spun out of control is a total loss of trust in government, which failed [residents] miserably. They don’t believe a word that anyone tells them.”
The inspector general’s report comes as the Trump administration is pushing for cuts to the EPA’s budget, including its drinking water oversight programs, and calling to shift more of that responsibility to the states.
In response to the inspector general’s report, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) highlighted the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) recent finding that more than half of U.S. schools either didn’t test their water for lead in 2015, or didn’t know whether the water had been tested.
“The responsibility of protecting America’s children from further exposure to this brain-damaging neurotoxin ultimately falls on President Trump and his EPA,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “Public health crises like the tragedy in Flint are almost certainly unfolding in other communities throughout the nation. Unless the agency ensures that regular testing occurs and strengthens outdated lead regulations, children in hundreds of communities could be exposed to lead at home, and in schools and day care facilities.”
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