The ongoing Flint water crisis generated headlines last week when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report warning that road work or hydrant flushing could shake loose toxic lead particles from rusted pipes and that residents needed to be notified about such work in order to protect themselves.
But what is not included in the EPA report is at least as significant as—and perhaps even more worrisome than—what the report does contain.
In effect, the report is a watered-down version of an internal memo written by Miguel Del Toral, a water specialist at the EPA’s Region 5 headquarters in Chicago. The Del Toral memo, written in late June and published by the ACLU of Michigan in July, laid out in startling detail the problems facing Flint’s water and what was causing them. (Both reports are available to view and download below.)
That memo ignited a chain reaction that eventually lead to Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision in October to allow the city to stop using corrosive water drawn from the Flint River and return to the Detroit system. The city had been using the Flint River since April 2014, as the result of a cost-cutting measure implemented by Snyder-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley.
The final version of Del Toral’s memo, after working its way up the EPA’s bureaucratic ladder, failed to address two of the most potent criticisms Del Toral leveled at the state for the way it conducts testing under the federal Lead and Copper Rule monitoring program: the failure to use legally required corrosion control chemicals and testing methodology that reduces the amount of lead detected in water samples collected from homes.
Particularly baffling is the EPA’s failure to say definitively whether Flint was required to have a corrosion-control program in place after switching from the Detroit system to the Flint River.
In Del Toral’s June memo, he clearly asserts that that the city of Flint—under the guidance of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality—should have been using phosphates to help mitigate the effects of the highly corrosive Flint River. Detroit, which had provided water to the city before the changeover, has long used corrosion control.
Even MEDQ Director Dan Wyant, after first wrongly claiming that a corrosion control program was in place, has admitted the MDEQ erred by not continuing to use phosphates after the changeover occurred
Asked why concerns about the lack of corrosion control weren’t included in the EPA’s most recent report, spokeswoman Anne Rowan wrote in an e-mail that the issue of corrosion control would be addressed by the newly created “ Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force.” Del Toral is on the task force.
The task force will also look into the MDEQ’s controversial practice of instructing residents to “pre-flush” their water systems before collecting water samples. In his original memo, Del Toral wrote that the practice was, essentially, a way to exploit a “loophole” in the law, and resulted in lower levels of lead being detected.
In addition to the creation of that task force, the EPA announced this week that that the agency will conduct an audit of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) drinking water program.
“The people of Flint deserve answers, and I welcome the EPA's audit of the state's actions that led to the Flint water crisis,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) in a statement issued following a meeting with EPA officials on Tuesday.
“While this meeting was an important step forward and provided answers to a number of my concerns,” added Kildee, “ it raised additional questions about the actions of MDEQ and other state officials, including the emergency financial manager, and the decisions they made that led to this crisis. An audit is a critical next step that will help uncover the facts and ensure that the appropriate people are held accountable.”
Some in Flint met the announcement of the EPA's involvement with mixed feelings. “I’m glad it is happening, but it is long overdue,” said Flint resident LeeAnne Walters.
Del Toral wrote his original memo after he investigated the situation at the Walters home, and independent tests conducted by scientists at Virginia Tech found lead levels in the family’s drinking water that were more than twice the level at which water is classified as hazardous waste.
The audit will consist of a “full programmatic review that supplements the reviews of the Michigan drinking water program that EPA conducts each year,” according to the agency. The audit is expected to take several months.
Walters, whose 4-year-old son was diagnosed with lead poisoning, isn’t waiting for that audit to be completed to push for changes in the way water is monitored for lead. She and others who helped expose the Flint water crisis—including Prof. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Flint’s Hurley Medical Center—will be making presentations at a public hearing held by the National Drinking Water Advisory Council next week in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to have the EPA close loopholes in the Lead and Copper Rule monitoring program.
To build support for those changes, Walters has posted a petition on the web site change.org.
“Loopholes and flaws in EPA’s regulations allowed the children in Washington D.C. to be lead poisoned for years from 2001 through 2006,” Walters wrote in a statement urging people to sign the petition. "You would think that after an entire town is lead-poisoned that EPA would never allow this to happen again.
"You’d be wrong.”