WASHINGTON – The answer to who sentenced children and their elders in Flint, Mich., to possible permanent brain damage from lead poisoning is: nearly everybody.
An unnamed spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged to Reuters Wednesday that the EPA “did not respond fast enough” to citizen complaints about lead contamination of the city’s drinking water.
Flint, operating under a state-appointed trustee, had switched its water supply from Detroit’s system to the filthy Flint River in 2014 “to save money.” It changed back to Detroit in October, but too late.
Some of the blame for this disaster is laid, properly, on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican. But this type of bloodless scandal is repeated all over the federal and state establishments in exotic forms.
It is the product of endemic official incompetence, laziness and self-seeking, with a rancid slice of racism on the side. Flint’s population is predominantly black.
The EPA must shoulder its own share. For three decades, federal law books have swelled with laws and regulations giving the EPA ultimate oversight over the safety of all the country’s drinking water.
The EPA has bureaus set up to bring civil and criminal charges against municipal systems that mess up. Some day, when it is discovered that a Flint schoolchild can no longer recite the alphabet, somebody should go to jail.
But don’t wait for anybody to be punished for serving the child sparkling Lead-Aid, because blame will be shunted around until the kid is forgotten.
Read what the EPA said Wednesday about its oversight responsibilities in Flint: It was “hampered by failures and resistance at the state and local levels to work with us in a forthright, transparent and proactive manner.”
While the EPA blamed state and local officials on Wednesday, the same agency’s regional federal administrator took the fall and quit on Thursday night.
Under law, the EPA never had to wait on the governor or anybody when the city’s water first showed its sulfuric hue a year ago. The EPA has had emergency powers to correct dangers like this since the Reagan administration.
The EPA, however, had its distractions. The agency had to help shape the president’s global climate change initiatives. At the same time the EPA was turning a blind eye to Flint, the EPA was cranking up regulations giving it even broader powers over the nation’s water system. In addition to waterways like the Flint River, New York Harbor and the Mississippi River, the EPA published a rule giving it jurisdiction over rural ponds, suburban rivulets and certain mountain ditches.
Republicans who control both Houses passed laws blocking the new rule giving the EPA broader powers. The Republicans talked piously about the injury the EPA rule would inflict on their notions of local-state cooperation to keep the environment safe. President Obama last week vetoed the bill the Republicans passed to block the new EPA rules.
Yet, in the frightened faces of the people of Flint, we have a fresh view of the merits of Republican-style cooperation on the environment.
That brand of interagency collusion threatens to take us back 50 years, when massive tank-sized cakes of white gunk floated down the Buffalo River.
Still, one has to ask about the engine that drove the EPA to seek more power at the moment it had betrayed the people of Flint, and Lord knows whom else.
Yes, the EPA has a boss. Administrator Gina McCarthy was harassed by Republican senators who refused to confirm her in 2013 until she answered 800 written questions.
You see, all this conflict is not about you and me. It is about bureaucrats and lobbyists who tell them what to do.