In the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2016 established a new lead contamination response system that regulators claimed would help prevent a repeat of the deadly catastrophe.
But that newly implemented policy was ignored by EPA staff starting in 2018 as residents in Benton Harbor, Michigan, for three years drank water poisoned with astronomical levels of lead in some cases far above what was found in Flint, federal investigators charge.
In a new audit of the agency’s Benton Harbor response, the EPA office of inspector general criticized EPA staff for not alerting senior leadership to the unfolding crisis, as the policy recommends. Sounding the alarm might have resulted in a swifter response – instead, the water remained contaminated as state regulators attempted fixes that failed for three years.
“After Flint, everyone said ‘Never again’, and yet 175 miles from Flint, it happened again, and for a longer period of time,” said Cyndi Roper, senior policy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Benton Harbor is an impoverished community with approximately 9,000 residents, about 87% of whom are Black. The city’s median income is about $24,000, and regulators’ slow response is viewed as a clear environmental injustice by many public health advocates.
Lead, a potent toxin, can leach from ageing drinking water lines and damage cardiovascular and reproductive systems. It’s particularly dangerous for children and any level of exposure can cause neurological damage, lower IQ and behavioral problems.
About 30% of Benton Harbor’s drinking water taps tested in 2018 exceeded the 15 parts per billion (ppb) threshold that triggers federal action. By 2021, after three years of EPA monitoring, the levels had grown as high as 889ppb – 60 times above the trigger threshold.
Residents reported that tap water was the color of tea and “sizzling like Alka-Seltzer”, but they were not given clean water or advised on how to avoid the dangers until 2021.
Environmental regulators with Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration first tried in 2018 to lower the amount of lead leaching into drinking water by tweaking chemicals that control corrosion.
But that failed as staff in the EPA’s region five office monitored the state and local response, the inspector general audit found. The situation met four out of five criteria for alerting senior leadership, as recommended by the “Policy on Elevation of Critical Public Health Issues’’, but staff did not “elevate” it. Though the system is voluntary, clear evidence of highly contaminated water should have prompted staff to act, the audit found.
“Because the elevation policy was not used, the senior-level team did not have an opportunity to assess and recommend steps for resolving elevated lead levels in the Benton Harbor water system,” the report continues.
Beyond the high lead levels, the city’s water department was in disarray. Between 2018 and 2020, the state cited the department for its insufficient revenue, failing to sufficiently treat the water and failing to alert the public to problems.
Still, bottled water and health advisories were not offered to residents until September 2021, after the NRDC and other public health advocacy groups filed an emergency petition with the agency requesting it intervene, and a public relations nightmare began brewing.
Testing several weeks later found an uptick in lead levels in kids’ blood, though state health officials sought to downplay the results, independent public health experts say testing probably under-represented the amount of lead in kids’ blood.
By early this year, the state and Benton Harbor had replaced nearly all of the city’s lead service lines.
The EPA disagreed with most of the inspector general’s findings.
In a letter attached to the audit, water division leadership and an agency attorney seemed to suggest leadership was as culpable as staff. Staff found other avenues to elevate the issue to senior leadership, which “had ample opportunity to assess and recommend steps for resolving the issues in Benton Harbor”, they wrote.
The agency also stressed that the system was voluntary and pointed to a $5.6m grant announced in late 2020 by former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, a Trump appointee who ran the agency at the time.
The inspector general wrote that it was unclear when the policy would ever be followed if it was not in Benton Harbor. If the agency is to “enhance public health and environmental protection”, EPA leadership should “determine how this policy can more effectively achieve its purpose in situations like Benton Harbor”, the inspector general wrote.
Roper said that would involve making the response system mandatory. A new federal lead rule is expected to be proposed by the EPA in the next month, and the agency could “bake in” the recommendations to make them requirements. Making the system mandatory is a “no-brainer”, Roper said.
“It shouldn’t be ‘Well, we didn’t tell upper management because we aren’t required to do it, and we just chose not to,’” she added. “None of that is not appropriate.”