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EPA issues emergency order, takes on water testing in Flint

The Flint River and the Flint water treatment plant.
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued an emergency orderunder the Safe Drinking Water Act. State and city officials in Flint will now have to take immediate steps to address the Flint water crisis.

The EPA says the state and local responses to the water crisis have been inadequate to protect public health, and the agency says these failures continue.

Here's what the EPA said in a statement Thursday evening:

As part of the ongoing federal response in Flint, MI, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy spoke to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, sent him a letter, and issued a Safe Drinking Water Act Emergency Order to ensure the state and city immediately take actions necessary to protect public health. EPA has determined the State of Michigan and the City of Flint’s responses to the drinking water crisis in Flint have been inadequate to protect public health, there are serious, ongoing concerns with delays, lack of adequate transparency, and capacity to safely manage the drinking water system. Governor Snyder reiterated his commitment to quickly get safe water back to the people of Flint and the willingness of his new team to work with EPA to define a path forward as soon as possible. McCarthy also spoke to newly elected Flint Mayor Karen Weaver about these next steps.

The agency is ordering the city and state to hand over water testing results and information about lead service lines. The agency is also taking on additional water testing in Flint.

“When there's an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of a population, EPA can exert what's called emergency powers and just take over a system," says Marc Edwards, an expert on drinking water at Virginia Tech.

He says it’s good that EPA is stepping in to test water, but it should have started doing that sooner.

“I don’t think we’d be in this position now with this current crisis of confidence that really has just spun out of control.”

The city of Flint did not return calls for comment today.

In an emailed statement, Dave Murray, press secretary for Governor Snyder, said the state stands ready to work with the EPA and all agencies to fix the water crisis:

“As Gov. Snyder said in his State of the State Address earlier this week, government at all levels failed the people of Flint. He accepted accountability for that, and noted that federal, state, and local leaders broke the trust of the people. We should all focus on the needs of Flint – both immediate and long-term. Making the city whole again must be our top priority.”

However, in a letter to the EPA, DEQ Director Keith Creagh says he questions "whether the USEPA has the legal authority to order a state an its agencies to take the actions outlined in the order.”

The letter goes on to say that "the order, as currently drafted, contains factual omissions and legal errors. For example, the order does not reference the tens of millions of dollars expended by or in the process of being expended by the state for water filters, drinking water, testing and medical services.”

EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman announced her resignation yesterday, effective February 1.

*This post has been updated.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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