Feds too slow with Flint investigation

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Gary Wilson.

Gary Wilson.

Commentary

By Gary Wilson

A friend, after hearing a recent comment I made about the Flint water crisis asked, “What’s happening? I thought everything was resolved there.”

I paused to gather my thoughts so I could give a simple answer to what was an unintentionally complex question.

“Water quality is improving but …,” I said. I could see his gaze avert so I stopped there.

Best to spare him explanations about filters, funding, pipes, legal investigations, political agendas and that Flint’s problems are the tip of the iceberg. Drinking water quality and infrastructure are national problems as illustrated by a just-released Natural Resources Defense Council Report.

The technical aspects of providing safe drinking water for Flint will sort themselves out hopefully sooner than later.

But I really wanted to tell my friend about the investigations.

chicagoview USE THIS ONEThey’re important for accountability and to prevent reoccurrences.

One is complete.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint task force completed work earlier this year.

It laid blame primarily at the door of the Department of Environmental Quality. Its director Dan Wyant resigned as did Brad Wurfel, who did communications for the department.

Snyder accepted responsibility because Wyant reported to him. He apologized to Flint residents. Snyder has been treading water since trying to restore trust and credibility in his ability to govern. He’s got a ways to go and may never get there.

In January, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced an investigation to see if any laws were broken related to Flint.

Schuette moved quickly and in April announced criminal charges against two state employees and one from Flint. And two weeks ago he filed civil lawsuits for negligence and fraud against two corporations who were advising Flint on its water problems.

Schuette says he isn’t done and we can expect more charges this summer.

Then there’s the federal government.

At the same time Schuette announced his investigation in January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General launched an investigation into that agency’s role in Flint.

A team was dispatched to interview folks in the beleaguered city and since then, nothing. Not a peep.

Two weeks ago I contacted the EPA’s Inspector General’s office for a status report.

A week passed and no response. I followed up.

“It is the policy of our agency not to comment on ongoing investigations,” media liaison Jeffrey Lagda replied.

Then this a few days later.

“We are able to tell you that the EPA Office of Inspector General is part of a publicly announced task force convened by the U.S. Department of Justice that is investigating potential criminal violations regarding the Flint water crisis,” said Jennifer Kaplan, a deputy assistant inspector general for the EPA.

Ok, we’re waiting because this is important.

You see, USEPA is up to its eyeballs in responsibility for Flint.

It had:

  • Oversight responsibility for Flint under the Safe Drinking Water Act. That means it was EPA’s job to keep Michigan’s DEQ on track. It didn’t.
  • Emergency authority to intervene when Flint residents asked for help in October of 2015. It declined to use it.
  • A moral responsibility to tell Flint residents their water was lead-poisoned. Then EPA Region 5 administrator Susan Hedman knew and said nothing publicly.

And remember, what Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards told congressional investigators.

“EPA had everything to do with creating Flint.” said Edwards, who was one of the first to expose the extent of Flint’s water quality problems. EPA “aided, abetted and emboldened” Michigan’s DEQ.

Edwards has no dog in the fight except to help Flint residents.

Investigations done right take time, I get that. It’s more important to get it right than rush to incorrect conclusions. There’s also no basis to slow-walk the investigation. The old saying  justice delayed is justice denied applies here.

In six months Michigan’s Attorney General assembled a legal team, investigated and brought charges. What’s taking the feds so long, assuming there isn’t a political agenda in play?

In some ways I’m less interested in charging bureaucrats with crimes over Flint. I doubt any of them at the state or federal level intended to break the law. It’s more likely that bureaucratic incompetence and moral indifference were the culprits. And those deficiencies were part of a culture that comes from the top down.

Incompetence? Yes. Crimes? I don’t know.

I’d settle for an apology to Flint citizens and a full disclosure mea culpa from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.  To date she’s only called Hedman’s resignation “a courageous act on her part” and blamed Michigan at every turn without accepting responsibility for EPA’s role.

A simple public proclamation saying we were wrong and we failed the people of Flint would satisfy me before she moves on to a think tank or consultancy when the administration changes in January. Hopefully she’ll reflect on her denial of the obvious over time.

Absent that we’ll have to wait for the inspector general’s report.  I hope to see it soon.

Flint folks who’ve been surviving on bottled water for a year deserve to know how their federal government failed them.

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