EPA says it acted too slowly on Flint water crisis

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 19, 2016 3:19 PM

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Tuesday it should have acted faster in handling a crisis over lead-contaminated drinking water in the Michigan city of Flint and vowed to review its actions.

Separately, the Health and Human Services Department announced it would lead the federal government's emergency response. The White House said President Barack Obama would meet later on Tuesday with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to discuss the crisis. Weaver met earlier with White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

"The situation is anything but being ignored by the White House," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

Criticism of the state and federal response has grown in recent days over the crisis in Flint, a city of just under 100,000 residents about 60 miles (100 km) northwest of Detroit.

The financially-strapped city was under control of a state-appointed emergency manager when, seeking to save money, it switched its source of tap water from Detroit's system to the nearby Flint River in April 2014.

Flint returned to using Detroit's water in October after tests found elevated levels of lead in the water and in the blood of some children. Lead contamination can cause brain damage and other health problems.

The more corrosive water from the Flint River had leached lead from the city pipes more than Detroit water did, leading to the contamination.

The U.S. environmental agency said in a statement that "while EPA worked within the framework of the law to repeatedly and urgently communicate the steps the state needed to take to properly treat its water, those necessary actions were not taken as quickly as they should have been."

It added, "Our first priority is to make sure the water in Flint is safe, but we also must look at what the agency could have done differently."

The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) said it would join the Federal Emergency Management Agency to identify and mobilize various federal agencies working on the issue.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, has apologized for the state's handling of the crisis amid growing calls in the last week for him to resign.

Snyder and other critics have questioned the EPA's actions. "I think there are is­sues at the EPA through the course of all this," he told National Journal.

On Saturday, Obama declared a federal emergency over the Flint water crisis. But he denied an additional request for a major disaster declaration sought by Snyder. Obama ordered federal aid for state and local efforts.

On Monday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy defended the agency's response to the crisis. "EPA did its job but clearly the outcome was not what anyone would have wanted," she said.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry)