Flint redux: Scandal claims a federal official

Water problems and political cleansing from it continue sluicing through Flint, Michigan. Earlier this week, I asked, couldn’t the federal government have been the last-resort broker? Could it have sorted out the paralysis among the Flint residents, the local water people and the state level officials in Michigan.

Now we know.

The backwash flushed out its first federal official, when the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 director, one Susan Hedman, offered her resignation to Administrator Gina McCarthy, who accepted. Hedman will be on the job until Feb. 1. It turns out, the EPA has known about this problem for some time. The Associate Press reports, Michigan officials notified EPA as far back as April 15, 2015, that Flint water managers weren’t properly treating the, er, water from the Flint River to prevent it from leaching lead out of the pipes connected to Flint homes. The EPA acted — but not until in October, when the switch back to its previous Detroit supply occurred. The damage to pipes having already been done, the water in Flint is still no good.

President Barack Obama blamed Gov. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.). But, as I predicted, the federal government will kick in $80 million to help do over Flint’s water distribution system. There’s a project that is literally shovel-ready.

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People make mistakes. Last’s August’s fouling of the Animus River in Colorado happened when an EPA crew dug into an old gold mine that had filled with orange glop. On that occasion, state and EPA officials at least acted quickly to pinch off the contaminant supply and warn people about not irrigating from the river or paddling on it until the water cleared.

In Flint’s case, the emails tell the story. CNN reports, in June the former Flint mayor asked Hedman about the water. She sent a bureaucratic response about preliminary draft reports, vetting with top management, how to share findings and recommendations, blah blah blah. It reads like CYA, not someone with the power to do something, jumping in and helping with the real problem. Not protocols for reports, but rather kids poisoned with lead.

The EPA didn’t cause the water problem in Flint. But it might have acted faster when it did find out. We don’t know whether Washington headquarters was aware of the toxicity brewing in Region 5, although the Flint water issue has been the subject of news stories for more than a year. The legalities in these cases are always murky, and agencies must act within the law. A regional federal administrator can’t order around a state governor. But it should have, if not the authority, at least the credibility to get everyone in one room and try to figure out what to really do.

Now nobody trusts anyone. Politics have flooded the situation, with even Michael Moore and Rev. Jesse Jackson jumping in.

EPA has always been controversial, always will be. It was signed into a law by a Republican President. It exercises wide rule-making powers with real effects on the economy. It is regularly caught between those egging it to do more and those trying to stop what they consider government going too far.

In this case, though, a little jab of authority early on might have brought mitigation to Flint and its water supply a lot sooner. To paraphrase the Homeland Security Department, when you see something, do something.

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