Congressional investigators probing the water crisis in Flint, Mich., say the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) punished a staff member who blew the whistle on the high lead content of the city’s water supply and the agency’s unwillingness to confront the public health threat.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released an email EPA regulations manager Miguel Del Toral sent to his supervisors, complaining that he was being “stuck in a corner holding up a potted plant because of Flint.”
The Congressional committee’s probe is part of a federal investigation of the man-made Flint water disaster, which has exposed thousands of children to toxic levels of lead. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who has repeatedly refused calls to step down because of the crisis, has admitted that the state failed to ensure the water was properly treated to prevent it from leeching lead out of Flint’s city pipes.
Exposure to lead is particularly damaging to children who are still developing. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can irreversibly damage organs, restrict brain development, lead to difficulty learning, promote emotional and behavioral problems, and more.
Last June, Mr. Del Toral wrote a memo to EPA supervisors warning them of the situation in Flint.
“A major concern from a public health standpoint is the absence of corrosion control treatment in the City of Flint for mitigating lead and copper levels in the drinking water,” Mr. Del Toral wrote. “Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water, which is to be expected in a public water system that is not providing corrosion control treatment.”
Despite the warnings and complaints, city and state officials continued to deny there was a serious problem and insisted everything was fine.
Other emails produced in the investigation showed that Mr. Del Toral strongly objected to the EPA’s decision not to fine Flint for its failure to notify city residents that it had failed to treat the water properly to safeguard against lead pipe corrosion.
Last summer, an independent analysis conducted by Marc Edwards, a civil engineer with Virginia Tech, found toxic levels of lead in Flint’s water, yet the EPA stayed mute on the brewing controversy while state officials downplayed Edwards’ findings.
It wasn’t until pediatricians with the Hurley Medical Center in Flint produced data clearly showing a giant spike in the number of children suffering from lead poisoning that state officials began to address the problem.
Mr. Toral followed up with the EPA, which had prohibited him from attending key public health meetings, re-confirming his agency’s blunders.
“You have a city that has lead lines and no treatment that is collecting pre-flushing which we know can easily miss very high lead levels. We do nothing to stop that,” Del Toral wrote, referring to the city’s dubious practice of telling city residents to run their taps prior to filling bottles for lead testing — a process that will water down lead levels because less of the water has been resting in the pipes.
“We have an independent group taking samples that show much higher lead levels and what do people do? They question the (Virginia Tech) data,” Mr. Del Toral wrote. “At every stage of this process, it seems that we spend more time trying to maintain State/local relationship than we do trying to protect the children.”