The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently released a report on the management failures that led to the Flint, Michigan water crisis in 2014 and gave recommendations on how to prevent such crises from occurring in the future. The 74-page document, which follows a preliminary October 2016 report, found that both the EPA and the state of Michigan are at fault for the contamination crisis in which nearly 100,000 residents were exposed to unsafe levels of lead.
The report details two consecutive missteps catapulted the problem; the first misstep was the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) not properly following two Lead and Copper Rule requirements, and the second happened when EPA Region 5 failed to implement “management controls” for better decision-making. “While Flint residents were being exposed to lead in drinking water, the federal response was delayed, in part, because the EPA did not establish clear roles and responsibilities, risk assessment procedures, effective communication and proactive oversights tools,” the report states.
The report offers nine recommendations:
- Establish controls to annually verify that states are monitoring compliance with all Lead and Copper Rule requirements, including accurately identifying tier 1 sampling sites and maintaining continuous corrosion control treatment.
- Revise the Lead and Copper Rule to improve the effect.
- Publicly document clear expectations, roles and responsibilities between the EPA and the state of Michigan in an official document, such as a memorandum of understanding or a supplemental primacy document.
- Implement a system for regional drinking water staff, managers and senior leaders, which incentivizes staff elevating and managers addressing important and emerging issues in accordance with the EPA’s “Policy on Elevation of Critical Environmental and Public Health Issues.”
- Provide the public with all results from EPA reviews of Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act program, and track the progress of identified corrective actions.
- Provide regular training for EPA drinking water staff, managers and senior leaders on Safe Drinking Water Act tools and authorities; state and agency roles and responsibilities; and any Safe Drinking Water Act amendments or Lead and Copper Rule revisions.
- Implement a system to identify management risks in state drinking water programs, including elements such as atypical events, emerging public health concerns, environmental justice concerns and public health analyses.
- Create a system that tracks citizen complaints and gathers information on emerging issues. The system should assess the risk associated with the complaints, including efficient and effective resolution.
- Improve oversight by establishing a clear and credible escalation policy for EPA intervention in states.
Eight of the nine recommendations have been resolved, and the EPA stated that in response to the one unresolved recommendation – to establish controls to annually verify that states are monitoring compliance – the agency intends to develop a pilot program with states to launch a national monitoring program for lead standards.
There is currently pressure on the Trump Administration to rewrite the Lead and Copper Rule, an action which former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt championed but repeatedly delayed. ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave our nation’s drinking water a grade of “D.” According to the American Water Works Association, $1 trillion will be needed to maintain and expand drinking water service demands during the next 25 years. ASCE has several policy statements (PS 361 and PS 462) that recommend increased funding for and revisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act in order to adequately protect the public.