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The Bureaucratic Malfeasance That Created Flint and Sebring's Water Crises

A new report on lead contamination in an Ohio city underscores the severity (and ubiquity) of the town's health disaster.
American Red Cross volunteer John Lohrstorfer walks down Maryland St. on Flint's north side bringing bottled water and filters to homes on January 21, 2016. (Photo: Sarah Rice/Getty Images)

American Red Cross volunteer John Lohrstorfer walks down Maryland St. on Flint's north side bringing bottled water and filters to homes on January 21, 2016. (Photo: Sarah Rice/Getty Images)

The corruption and incompetence that poisoned Flint, Michigan, runs way deeper than just the toxic waters of the Flint River.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that lead contamination "went unchecked for months" in a handful of Ohio towns, including the village of Sebring, which has a population of 4,400. Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency told the Times that public water sources in Sebring—including the drinking fountains in Sebring public schools—showed "measurable" amounts of lead, despite "corrective action" taken by water authorities.

This probably came as a surprise to the residents of Sebring, who, thanks to the Village Solicitor, were under the impression that the Ohio EPA had deemed the town's water plant to be "not in violation" for lead or other heavy metals. The reason for this contradiction? State environmental officials "knew as early as October that residents ... were drinking water contaminated with lead but did not warn the public," according to public records obtained by the Columbus Dispatch. Stonewalling the public was the Ohio EPA's strategy for covering up its own organizational incompetence: According to the Times, local and state officials "waited too long to raise an alarm, caused more delays with shoddy paperwork, failed to do required testing and might have even falsified documents on water quality."

While the United States has been due for a reckoning over our aging and degraded water infrastructure, the bureaucratic malfeasance at play on the local, state, and federal level in the cases of Flint and Sebring still comes as a shock. In both Flint and Sebring, local officials underreported the presence of heavy metals and used flawed testing methods, while state officials delayed action in response to the growing crises and systematically downplayed the risks to taxpayers.

What good is a federal agency if it doesn't help the people it's supposed to serve?

But there's something to be said for the EPA's outsized role in these burgeoning disasters. Susan Hedman, the regional director whose jurisdiction included both Michigan and Ohio, resigned last week, on the same day the agency issued an emergency order to protect the public from poisoned water. But along with her resignation, Hedman attempted to absolve herself and the agency of responsibility for the failure to properly anticipate the crisis in Flint, telling the Detroit News that "communication about lead in drinking water and the health impacts associated with that, that's the role of [the Department of Health and Human Services], the county health department and the drinking water utility."

The EPA followed her example, placing the blame solely on state and local authorities. "Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the state of Michigan was responsible for implementing the regulations to protect their residents' drinking water," an EPA spokesperson told NBC News last week. "EPA's ability to oversee management of that situation was impacted by failures and resistance at the state and local levels to work with us in a forthright, transparent, and proactive manner consistent with the seriousness of the risks to public health."

The response was the same in the case of Sebring, where EPA officials put the blame back on local officials for ducking the agency's lead and copper rules. The Associated Press reported that the Ohio EPA fingered former Water Superintendent James Bates for issuing "misleading, inaccurate or false reports" on lead levels in the water taps in residential homes and schools.

"The games the Village of Sebring was playing by giving us incomplete data time and time again, and not submitting the required documents, made it difficult for our field office to determine whether or not they had notified their customers," Ohio EPA representative Heidi Griesmer told CBS News.

There's some level of truth to the EPA's defense: Federal bodies can't effectively craft policy if state and local agencies refuse to cooperate. But that doesn't absolve the EPA for dragging its feet when alarming lead levels came to their attention. According to excellent reporting on Flint's water crisis by Rebecca Leber at the New Republic, the EPA dithered and played a game of political chess with state regulators over who would get the lion's share of the blame, rather than publicly sounding the alarm:

In April 2014, Flint's residents, the majority of whom are black, were assured by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that "the quality of the water being put out meets all of our drinking water standards and Flint water is safe to drink." The EPA didn't know something was amiss until February 2015. Miguel Del Toral, a water expert with the EPA Region 5 office, noted in February that Flint's water wasn't being treated for lead since the switch to Flint River and that state tests were understating the problems, according to documents obtained by the ACLU.

According to a memo from June that was later leaked, Del Toral was concerned that Flint did not use the same chemical treatments for lead and copper after it made the switch in 2014, and that corroded plumbing was likely leaching lead: "In the absence of any corrosion control treatment, lead levels in drinking water can be expected to increase." Compounding the problem, Michigan instructed residents to "pre-flush" their taps before sampling, leading to depressed reporting of lead levels.

For the next six months, the agency was in a dispute with Michigan officials over how it interpreted water treatment under the 25-year-old EPA regulation on lead and copper.

While the the EPA's public position during its entire battle with regional water expert Del Toral was that Flint's water remained within a safe range, Leber reports that the agency "privately pressured state officials to do more," and it wasn't until November that the agency acknowledged Del Toral's concerns about flawed testing to both Michigan residents and the American public. We can see shades of this bureaucratic panic in the Ohio EPA's failure to alert the public to potential lead contamination back in October.

The twin disasters in Flint and Sebring should have inspired a level of responsibility on the EPA's part to recognize systemic problems; instead, the agency moved far too slowly and fretted over the public relations fallout. That the EPA continues now to hedge its responses as the public takes notice of water crises across the country is the sort of craven strategy that only confirms the ever-conservative fairytale about Kafkaesque bureaucratic incompetence.

As I wrote earlier this week, the dismal state of America's water infrastructure is no secret to state and federal authorities. The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2013 "Report Card for America's Infrastructure" gave our national water infrastructure a "D+" grade based on its aging pipes. Those aging pipes, which result in an estimated 240,000 water main breaks every year, are outright killing us: A 2015 report from the American Water Works Association found that "up to 96 million Americans could be found to be drinking water with unsafe levels of lead."

On the brink of what appears to be a wave of water crises, the breakdowns in Flint and Sebring raise an important question for the EPA: What good is a federal agency if it doesn't help the people it's supposed to serve?