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EPA Chief To Testify Before Congressional Panel On Flint's Water Crisis


As calls go out demanding the governor of Michigan step down in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, it's worth noting that lead in the water there did not just happen. It began with the decision two years ago to switch Flint's source of water from the city of Detroit to the Flint River to save money. And that brought lead-contaminated water into the homes and schools and businesses of Flint. Even after health problems began to appear, government at all levels was slow to respond, including the Environmental Protection Agency. An internal report alerted the EPA to the lead contamination last summer, seven months before it declared a public emergency. This week, the head of the EPA will be grilled by the House oversight committee on the agency's role in this crisis. When we reached Gina McCarthy at her office, I asked her about that.

Good morning.

GINA MCCARTHY: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Could you not have, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, immediately called for some sort of emergency action? I mean, the power is there - right? - if it finds out that a contaminant has made its way into drinking water and it's become unsafe.

MCCARTHY: Well, EPA's role in the Clean Water Act is not unlike the role of a parent with a grown child. You know, basically, the Safe Drinking Water Act says that the states make the decisions. They do the implementing. They do the enforcing. And it specifically creates a hurdle for EPA to intervene, just like a parent cannot intervene in a grown child's life unless they really mess up. And so the hurdle is twofold. First, do we have documentation that there is likely to be an imminent threat? And the second is we have to document that the state or the city are not taking the appropriate action. And what happened was the day after those tests were available to us in July, the state agreed to get corrosion control started in that city of Flint. The problem we had, from that point forward, was they consistently slow-walked their actions in a way that we thought prevented us from having clear authority, legal authority to pull that trigger.

MONTAGNE: So you're blaming, pretty clearly here, the state.

MCCARTHY: No, I'm - well, I'm clearly blaming two things. One is the reason that we have the lead problem in the first place is clearly a decision-making by the state-appointed emergency manager. And that was solely to save money in a community that was having tremendous difficulties financially. The second decision was the state of Michigan failing to treat that water. But what I'm saying is that the state consistently, from that point forward, misled us about whether corrosion control was happening. We had little information. The state was aggressively pushing back on us every step of the way. They continue to do that today. So we did have difficulties there. But in no way am I saying that I'm going to walk away from EPA's responsibility to look at this because I did not hear about this until way too late in the game. Now, I've also reached out to every other state to make sure that there are no hidden Flints in that system and that I have also encouraged them to put information on the web because if people have lost faith in government, the best thing we can do is to make sure that the public has transparent information.

MONTAGNE: You know, you just mentioned the possibility of hidden Flints.


MONTAGNE: It was one mother in Flint who sounded the alarm, even while the state was ignoring her. And as she testified herself - her name is LeeAnne Walters - her belief was that the EPA's regional administrator - and I'm quoting here - "cared more about policy than the welfare of an entire community." Would there be hidden Flints? Would there be places where there is no LeeAnne Walters?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think Flint is an extraordinarily unique circumstance. So I don't think we're looking for something that is quite as severe as this. What we're looking for is to make sure that states are actually doing their job and that we're being as aggressive as we can be in oversight. But again, there are 152,000 water systems, which is why Congress gave the first line of defense as the state. So we're going to continue to work with the state. But we're also going to learn a lesson about how you deal with a state that doesn't do its job well and aggressively keeps you arm's length from the oversight that you need to do.

MONTAGNE: When will Flint's water be safe to drink again?

MCCARTHY: Well, the good news is that we did testing on the water filters. And indeed, the water filters do work very, very well, even when the lead in the system is high. Now, we can be assured from recent tests that the system is moving in the right direction. We are seeing the pipes being protected by the organophosphates that are put in there. And that should mean that lead is beginning to abate in the system. And people can return shortly to being able to utilize that water more consistently. But we are not there yet. We're hoping within the next three or four weeks that we'll be able to go to Flint and report to them that the system is re-optimized again. But we are not there. And I think it's going to be a long time before people are comfortable drinking that water. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this interview on Morning Edition, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says organophosphates are being used in Flint to coat the pipes. An EPA spokesperson confirms that she misspoke, and should have said orthophosphates.]

MONTAGNE: You know, one part of this story, though, is when you hear from people in Flint, Mich., they will say that this is a problem or could be a problem in lots of cities, but in Flint, which is very poor and predominantly black, no one cared.

MCCARTHY: I really think - there is no question to me that this is an environmental justice issue. If that's what you're asking, I think it's a community that is very low in terms of its income level, that is high-minority. They had someone come in and take over the decisions of their community. Obviously, the decision to move from a treated to an untreated water system and then not treat it was something that I think if everybody understood the circumstance and had a voice, they would have questioned, including EPA. So there are many ways in which this community's needs were not addressed. And their concerns were not listened to. And if EPA was in any way deaf to those or wasn't immediately responding to it, then that can never happen at EPA again.

MONTAGNE: Gina McCarthy is the administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. Thank you very much for joining us.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: The House oversight committee hearings begin today. Gina McCarthy testifies on Thursday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 14, 2016 at 11:00 PM CDT
During this interview on Morning Edition, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says organophosphates are being used in Flint to coat the pipes. An EPA spokesperson confirms that she misspoke, and should have said orthophosphates.
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