Flint water crisis resurfaces familiar federal transparency problems

As the devastating full story of the Flint water scandal unfolds, it has become clear that the Flint city and Michigan state governments were not alone in covering up crucial public health information.

As early as April 2015, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency knew of problems with Flint’s water supply – months before the issue became public knowledge in September. The fight for transparency around the Flint scandal has frequently devolved into a partisan blame game, but it’s important to note that the federal government displayed a troubling lack of openness regarding important public health concerns – and it’s not the first time.

When the city of Flint switched its water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014, it should have treated the water so that it would not cause corrosion in the city pipes and contaminate the water, in compliance with an EPA regulation called the Lead and Copper Rule. However, the EPA now says it confirmed in April 2015 that the city had no plan to prevent corrosion, despite assurances from city and state officials to the contrary. EPA official Miguel Del Toral then investigated these concerns, and determined that the water contained dangerous levels of lead – a conclusion that he expressed in a June internal memo.

The memo was made public when the Michigan ACLU obtained it from a Flint resident, who had received it from Del Toral because it contained identifying information on her and her children. The EPA swiftly followed with a press release downplaying these “initial results,” while Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) spokesman Brad Wurfel assured the public that there was no “broad problem with the water supply.”

Despite its concerns that Flint’s drinking water was unsafe, the EPA did nothing to alert residents. Instead, the public was only made aware of the dangerous lead levels in September 2015, through independent investigations by members of the public. Susan Hedman, head of the EPA’s regional office in Chicago, defended the agency’s actions, arguing that the state’s insistence that it wasn’t breaking any laws prevented the EPA from making its concerns public.

The Flint cover-up, however, echoes another water scandal that plagued Washington, D.C. residents in the early 2000s. Huffington Post reporters Arthur Delaney and Philip Lewis recently made the connection, highlighting the striking similarities between the EPA’s behavior in Flint and the way both it and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention handled the D.C. water crisis.

Although the EPA knew of dangerous lead levels in Washington’s water in 2002, the information was only revealed to the public through a Washington Post story in January 2004. After the Post story, the CDC released a report that minimized the danger posed to D.C. residents, and the EPA reportedly removed some warnings about lead levels from its website. As Delaney and Lewis report, it wasn’t until 2009 that independent researcher Marc Edwards published research showing the scope of the damage to D.C. residents. The federal government refused to provide the data Edwards needed for his research, and he was forced to obtain data from local hospitals.

Eight years later, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who exposed the dangerous blood lead levels in Flint’s children, was forced to conduct her research in much the same way.

After years of fighting — through research and FOIA requests, Edwards was successful in obtaining CDC emails that showed officials felt key information had been left out of their D.C. report, including the fact that some of the children whose blood had been tested had been drinking bottled water, not city water. In 2010, the CDC admitted that it had misled the public on the dangers of D.C.’s drinking water.

Just five years later, Edwards was forced to take up the fight again, this time in Flint. Because the public could not rely on city, state, or federal governments for information, Edwards established a website where he and his research team could use FOIA and data to keep people informed.

The EPA announced on Thursday, January 21 that Susan Hedman would resign, and that the agency would begin analyzing lead levels in Flint and making the information available to the public. In addition, the EPA will be putting forward a revision to the Lead and Copper Rule, in order to prevent other crises in the future. In his testimony before the EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council, Flint-native Congressman Dan Kildee (D-MI) called for the new rule to include provisions for “greater transparency in order to restore public confidence and protect public health.”

As the citizens of Flint work to hold their local representatives accountable, the rest of the country must do its part to ensure greater transparency will hold the federal government accountable as well. 

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