Susan Hedman, the EPA administrator in charge of the Midwest, has resigned from her office amidst the ongoing toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Gina McCarthy, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, accepted Hedman’s resignation on Thursday.
Hedman is the second government official to resign over the Flint crisis. In late December, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Director Dan Wyant resigned from office after he and the DEQ were heavily criticized for their poor handling of the emergency.
“Although many individuals and entities at state and local levels contributed to creating and prolonging the problem, MDEQ is the government agency that has responsibility to ensure safe drinking water in Michigan. It failed in that responsibility and must be held accountable for that failure,” wrote the Flint Water Advisory Task Force in a letter to Wyant.
Flint’s Contaminated Water
It wasn’t until October that the Flint government admitted its water was contaminated with dangerous levels of lead, but the problem was apparent long before that. Flint residents have been complaining about the smell and taste of their tap water ever since the city began sourcing it from the Flint River in April 2014. Later, residents’ health began to noticeably decline.
For more than a year, Flint’s corrosive water leached lead out of the city’s aging pipes. A deadly neurotoxin, lead is particularly dangerous to children. Even low levels of lead contamination can irreversibly affect children’s IQ and mental capacity. In adults, it contributes to high blood pressure and a host of other ailments, including fatigue, hearing loss, seizures, nausea and anemia. It can also lead to stillbirths and miscarriages in pregnant women. As the National Resources Defense Council puts it, “There is no safe level of lead exposure.”
With that in mind, here’s a quick explanation of how much lead is in Flint’s water.
The EPA measures lead contamination in parts per billion (ppb); if water contains lead levels higher than 15 ppb, the EPA recommends taking action (e.g., replacing pipes, lacing the water with anti-corrosive agents). Again, there is no safe level of lead exposure––and some scientists recommend taking action for measurements as low as five ppb––but in general, the lower the ppb, the better. Flint originally sourced its water from Detroit, where the water measures 2.3 ppb.
A group of Virginia Tech researchers sampled water from 271 homes in Flint (the complete dataset is available here) and found that 90 percent of them had levels of lead at 27 ppb. Some households measured even higher levels: 158 ppb, 397 ppb and even above 5,000 ppb. As the Washington Post points out, that level of lead contamination is high enough for the EPA to classify the water as “toxic waste.”
Virginia Tech took these samples only after government officials continued to insist that Flint’s water was safe to drink. The results of their research, coupled with a local pediatrician’s finding that children’s lead contamination had doubled since the city switched its water source, finally forced the government to acknowledge the problem and tell residents to stop drinking the water.
President Obama has since declared a State of Emergency in Flint and the National Guard is now delivering clean water door-to-door. But the damage to Flint’s residents and children has already been done.
Flint Residents Sue the City
On November 16, the residents of Flint, along with the ACLU of Michigan and the NRDC announced their intention to sue state and city officials for violating the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
“This action is about holding the government accountable for failing to protect the public health of an entire community,” said Anjali Waikar, an environmental justice staff attorney at the NRDC. “This case also highlights a troubling trend in which the government is willing to cut costs at the expense of its most vulnerable citizens.”
“In their short-sighted effort to save a buck, the leaders who were supposed to be protecting Flint’s citizens instead left them exposed to dangerously high levels of lead contamination,” said Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan. “Not only were the city and state’s actions dangerous and misguided. They were illegal, too.”
“So much irreparable harm has been done as a direct result of the failures and lack of oversight perpetrated by the City of Flint and Michigan officials who are the very people we relied on to keep us safe. This lawsuit gives me hope that this will stop and no other city will have to endure the physical, property, and emotional damage that Flint residents have,” said Melissa Mays of Water You Fighting For, a Flint-based organization.
In addition to the lawsuit, the NRDC also petitioned the federal EPA to use its emergency powers to aid in the crisis. Nearly two and a half months later, the EPA responded by saying that it was holding off on action until the Flint government took action.
“Thanks, EPA,” wrote Henry Henderson, the Midwest Program Director for the NRDC.
“The EPA’s reluctance to exhibit any meaningful leadership role in Flint reflects an unfortunate pattern of government officials in this case absolving themselves of any responsibility or wrongdoing,” Henderson added. “The people of Flint need less governmental mismanagement and more demonstrated leadership from the city, state and federal government. That is why we have given notice of our intent to sue. Adults are needed in the room — if EPA isn’t going to do it, we will.”