The Environmental Protection Agency is the ultimate line of defense against water contamination. Yet the Michigan crisis isn’t the first one this decade



The ultimate responsibility to safeguard public health rests with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), per the Clean Water Act. In fact, there are provisions of the Clean Water Act that provide for criminal prosecutions for violations that can result in fines and imprisonment.

The EPA has 200 fully authorized federal law enforcement agents who can carry firearms, 70 forensic scientists and technicians, and 45 attorneys who specialize in environmental crimes enforcement. Yet the EPA, mandated as the public’s last, best line of defense, failed the people – yet again – when it came to the Flint water crisis.

The Flint atrocity could, with congressional and presidential resolve, be the last one – agency administrators and political appointees serve at the pleasure of the president, and Congress is responsible for doling out funding to them.

But for that resolve to crystallize, the horrors of the poisoning of Flint need to be seen within the historical contexts that show the crimes committed against the people of Flint fit a toxic template with deep roots in the managerial culture of the EPA that has repeatedly created sacrifice zones in poor, predominantly black and brown communities of America, often backed by congressional and presidential inaction.

Congress, acting on behalf of the people, must break this cycle and hold all public officials who were complicit in the tragedy in Flint to account.

Ten years ago, municipal water quality expert Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who is now part of the group investigating Flint, took on the EPA and the CDC about lead poisoning in Washington DC. It took six years and tens of thousands of his own dollars to fight two federal agencies charged with protecting the public. After that period, by virtue of wresting Foia request information that both agencies had withheld from the public – and surviving both agency’s efforts to discredit him as an unreliable rogue – the agencies finally had to admit they had misled the public, and that a disproportionate number of Washington’s children of color suffered lead poisoning.

In 2005, the EPA used $2.1m provided by the American Chemistry Council to study the effects of pesticides on infants and babies, in what was known as the Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study, or Cheers. It offered $970, a free camcorder, a bib and a T-shirt to parents whose infants were exposed to pesticides in Duval County, Florida, if the parents completed a two-year study, which included “spraying pesticides inside your home routinely”.

California senator Barbara Boxer decried the program as “appalling, unethical and immoral”, saying it “is the worst kind of thing; it’s environmental injustice where children are the victims”. The acting EPA administrator moved decisively and halted the program – because Boxer vowed to hold up his confirmation until the study was shut down.

When asked about his experience witnessing the most recent effects of contaminated water, Marc Edwards almost came out of his chair at a congressional hearing on Flint water last week, which we both attended. “There was plenty enough evidence in the corrosive material found in the water samples to merit immediate action,” he said. “They didn’t need to wait for levels of lead to spike in the children’s blood before they did anything. But the [department of environmental quality] and the EPA were perfectly content to have their way with the children of Flint.”

He stopped himself, struggling for composure. He lowered his eyes.

At the same time, muffled breathing grew a few rows behind him at the back of the room. Then a choking sound. And then a wail. A black woman in a red dress stood up, bent sharply at the waist with her hands clasped in fists against her lips. She tried and failed to hold back her cries. She turned and rushed toward the aisle.

The members noticed. Heads turned. The woman in red left, her sobs filling the chamber as she trailed through the heavy wooden doors. The EPA representatives didn’t even look in her direction.

Today we need to ask: what did EPA administrator Gina McCarthy know about Flint, and when did she know it? Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the homeland security and governmental affairs committee, has authorized US Marshals to “hunt him down” – referring to Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley – and “serve him that subpoena”. McCarthy also needs to be subpoenaed. The agency’s track record of collateral damage must be stopped.

But given the EPA’s repeated history of burying its actions, we cannot trust it to investigate itself. There needs to be an independent, transparent and comprehensive investigation of the underlying culture that prevents those conducting good science and best practices from fulfilling the agency’s mission.


Click here to read original article on theguardian.com website.


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