Almost 45 years ago, Congress showed great wisdom in creating the architecture for implementing this country’s environmental laws. From the Safe Drinking Water Act to the Clean Air Act, and to laws regulating hazardous and solid waste, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shares the responsibility with state governments for implementing their provisions: from permitting, to inspections, to enforcement.
Where states don’t have the resources, wherewithal or political will to implement the laws meant to protect public health and the environment, the federal government is not only legally empowered, but also legally and — in some cases — morally, obligated to act. This is especially true in emergencies where there is an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public’s health.
The actions currently being taken by U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, as welcome as they are, are long overdue. Flint is a failure to act by those charged with protecting our safety and health (under the law) at both the federal and state levels.
Despite what some have said, the U.S. EPA does have the ability to take back delegated programs, like this one. But more importantly, the U.S. EPA has the independent authority to take emergency actions. That didn’t happen. At the very least, that’s an abrogation of great public trust and responsibility by many of the public officials involved.
There is plenty of blame to go around, not to mention possible criminal charges down the road. There is also the matter of a widespread erosion of confidence well beyond Flint, where everyone in America is suddenly — and justifiably — wondering, “What about my water?”
When confronted with concrete information about the significant health threats posed by lead in Flint’s drinking water almost a year ago, U.S. EPA officials had the authority to act decisively, with or without the state, to aggressively address a serious problem. They did not.
It was within the mandate of the U.S. EPA to warn the public, provide alternate water supplies and filters, conduct sampling, call in the Centers for Disease Control, and issue emergency orders to Michigan and Flint compelling action. They did not.
But beyond legal authority, mandates and responsibility, the U.S. EPA had the moral obligation to do something about Flint. They did not.
The fact it did not happen as months went by — and thousands of people were exposed to contaminated water — can only be considered hubris.
Several years ago, as I thanked an organization for an award, I said that working in a public office is a great honor and a responsibility, because you have the ability to impact the lives of millions of people — for better or worse.
In Flint, it was for an almost unimaginable worse.
Mary Gade is president of Gade Environmental Group in Chicago. She served as U.S. EPA regional administrator, Region 5, 2006-2008.