EPA OIG Report on Flint: What Could Have Been

Credit: Angela Guyadeen

The Office of the Inspector General of the EPA took a hard look at the Agency’s efforts in the Flint, Michigan long lasting water crisis and concluded that agency officials should have intervened months earlier than they did to alleviate the notorious lead-contaminated water crisis.

Upon review of the Flint case, EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins said, “These situations should generate a greater sense of urgency. Federal law provides the EPA with the emergency authority to intervene when the safety of drinking water is compromised. Employees must be knowledgeable, trained and ready to act when such a public health threat looms.”

We agree with the Inspector General’s findings. NRDC petitioned the EPA to use its powers to fix Flint’s water problems, which led to elevated lead levels in children, as far back as October 1, 2015. We were stunned the Agency declined to do so, as months dragged on and the people of Flint continued to receive contaminated water through the taps in their homes. Could haves and should haves can’t fix what’s been broken, but we hope the conclusion of the Inspector General spurs the EPA to take its responsibility to enforce the law seriously, and exercise its authority to protect the people of this nation from contaminated drinking water.  

As the Inspector General noted, when it comes to ensuring safe drinking water, complacency is not an option and this type of negligence is dangerous. Being “trained and ready to act” means being clear on one’s job and responsibilities, clear on the law and authority reposed in the agency, taking the time to prepare for crises so that when (not if) they occur, the response is like the muscle memory of a trained surgeon ready for action, rehearsing and preparing for the worst case scenarios to optimize strategy for the best possible outcome.

Instead, Flint is still in a situation—over two years later—where people are still unable to obtain access to drinking water free of lead, a known neurotoxin. Fixing Flint will require immediate action in terms of brick and mortar solutions, including removal of lead lines and associated investment in water system infrastructure—such investment has been ignored for decades. Equally importantly, it will also require investing in community leadership, official accountability, and restoration of democratic structures to reestablish faith in public institutions.

We hope Flint never happens again, but as we’ve seen from our own research and from the dozens of reports showing the pervasiveness of the lead in water problem, Flint is not alone. We must fix Flint and also do better to act swiftly to strengthen our policies to prevent another crisis like Flint from happening again.  

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