EPA chief warned in September Flint water crisis could ‘get big’

WASHINGTON The administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned in September that the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, could “get big” months before the EPA issued an emergency order requiring the state and city to take immediate steps to protect residents, emails released on Wednesday showed.

Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote in a Sept. 26, 2015, email to EPA staff that the Flint water issue was “really getting concerning” and asked for a meeting to be scheduled to determine “where we are now and what needs to be done by whom.”

McCarthy wrote, “This situation has the opportunity to get very big very quickly.”

She asked officials in another email the same day for options on federal intervention.

The EPA released 1,200 pages of redacted emails Wednesday on the agency’s response to the Flint water crisis.

An EPA spokeswoman did not comment on McCarthy’s emails.

In response to concerns from her deputy about the EPA possibly intervening, McCarthy wrote on Sept. 26, “There is danger if we do not weigh in as well. Doesn’t need to be formal but doing nothing is fraught as well.”

In January the EPA issued an emergency order requiring Michigan and city of Flint to take immediate steps to protect residents after determining that their response to the crisis had been “inadequate to protect human health.”

On Tuesday in a Washington Post editorial, McCarthy defended the EPA’s actions suggesting Michigan was “dismissive, misleading and unresponsive” and federal officials were “provided with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information.”

“As a result, EPA staff members were unable to understand the scope of the lead problem until more than a year after the switch to untreated water,” she wrote.

“While we were repeatedly and urgently telling the state to do so, looking back, we missed opportunities late last summer to get our concerns onto the public’s radar.”

McCarthy’s emails came after then EPA regional administrator Susan Hedman sent an email to superiors that controversy surrounding lead in Flint water was increasing after local doctors said lead levels in children had doubled since the city switched to Flint River water.

Hedman, who was criticized for her handling of the crisis, resigned in February. She testified to a Congressional committee on Tuesday and was chastised by House members for not moving fast enough to address the crisis.

McCarthy, who is due to testify before the same committee on Thursday, could face questions about the urgency at EPA to address the issue.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who has apologized for the state’s poor handling of the crisis, is also due to testify Thursday.

Snyder in written testimony released late on Wednesday said “inefficient, ineffective, and unaccountable bureaucrats at the EPA allowed this disaster to continue unnecessarily.” He called on McCarthy for the EPA to accept its share of the blame.

McCarthy wrote in a Sept. 27 email that the “state needs to step up here. Wonder if it isn’t the best solution to ask the state to support the shift back to Detroit water in the short term.”

The state helped Flint switch back to Detroit water in October. The same month the EPA established a task force to provide technical advice to help Flint’s water switch. EPA also announced an audit of Michigan’s environmental agency in November.

Under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, Flint, a working class mostly African-American city of 100,000 north of Detroit, switched water supplies to the Flint River in 2014, to save money.

The more corrosive river water, which was not treated, caused more lead to leach from the city’s aging water pipes than the Detroit water the city had tapped previously, causing a public health threat marked by high lead levels in blood samples taken from children. Lead is a toxic agent that can damage the nervous system.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Ben Klayman and Bernard Orr)

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