Energy & Environment

Watchdog knocks local EPA staff for response to lead contamination in Michigan city’s water

Local Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff failed to properly alert national-level colleagues to lead contamination in the water in a Michigan city, an internal watchdog said Thursday. 

A new report issued by the office of the EPA’s inspector general noted that staff in the EPA’s Midwest region did not use the agency’s “elevation policy” to alert national officials about the presence of lead in the water in Benton Harbor, Mich. 

The policy in question was developed in 2016 after the Flint water crisis exposed residents to lead in their tap water, the report said. 

It said that the Benton Harbor situation — where the local water system was found to have excess levels of lead, a neurotoxin — met four of the five criteria for elevation to the national level, including a substantial threat to public health. 

The report concludes that this “calls into question the circumstances under which staff would elevate any concern.”

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, which can cause them brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development and other problems with learning, behavior, hearing and speech.

The report notes that an EPA staff member who was involved in monitoring Michigan’s response to the issue in Benton Harbor said the state was addressing the issue in a timely manner. 

In an official response, the EPA’s regional office serving several Midwest states blasted the report as inaccurate.

A letter from officials at the EPA’s Midwest office said that regional staff did alert the EPA administrator via “normal elevation channels” rather than a separate channel. 

They said that the administrator’s senior-level team “had ample opportunity to assess and recommend steps for resolving the issues” and noted that then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler visited the town in 2020 and announced a grant to replace its lead service lines. 

They also said that there are hundreds of cases of excess pollution in the region and said that “if Agency staff were to invoke the elevation policy to elevate any issue that meets some of the elevation policy criteria, the separate elevation channel would be completely overwhelmed.”

Reached for comment, the agency also issued a written statement saying that EPA’s involvement was “instrumental to driving actions to ensure that the people of Benton Harbor are protected from exposure to lead in drinking water.”

“EPA worked closely with Michigan, the city of Benton Harbor, and the drinking water system on short-term solutions, including providing bottled water to residents while expeditiously working to replace all lead service lines in the city,” the EPA said. 

Meanwhile, the national EPA office in its official response noted that the elevation policy was reaffirmed in December and said it is “effective and working as intended.”

Tags Andrew Wheeler EPA lead contomination water contamination