EPA regional director to resign over Flint water crisis; Emails show officials worried about public image

The EPA also issued an emergency order Thursday, which calls on local governments to get a better handle on the crisis.
By Amy R. Connolly and Doug G. Ware   |   Updated Jan. 21, 2016 at 9:33 PM
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LANSING, Mich., Jan. 21 (UPI) -- An Environmental Protection Agency administrator responsible for overseeing a region that includes Flint, Mich., tendered her resignation on Thursday amid growing concern for the water contamination crisis.

Susan Hedman, the agency director of Region 5, also known as the Chicago Region, submitted her resignation to take effect Feb. 1 -- which was accepted by agency administrator Gina McCarthy.

The agency said it agreed with Hedman's assessment that her position could be a distraction as officials work to resolve the lead-contaminated water supply in Flint, "given Susan's strong interest in ensuring that EPA Region 5's focus remains solely on the restoration of Flint's drinking water."

Those in Flint, a town of about 100,000, are being advised not to drink unfiltered tap water due to traces of lead that's leaked into the supply from old pipes. Experts say drinking lead-contaminated water poses a serious health risk.

Also Thursday, the EPA issued an emergency order calling on local officials to "take a series of immediate steps to address the drinking water contamination."

The federal agency said actions taken so far by local governments in Michigan have been "inadequate."

Law enforcement officers and officials who are part of the Flint Water Response Team have been aiding in the crisis response by providing filtered drinking water.

Earlier Thursday, newly released emails about the crisis indicated that top officials looked to shift blame away from the state and a growing concern with the public image of the situation.

In an email to Gov. Rick Snyder, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and other state officials, then chief of staff to the governor, Dennis Muchmore, said Flint residents were using the issue of lead exposure as a "political football claiming the departments are underestimating the impacts on the populations and particularly trying to shift responsibility to the state."

"I can't figure out why the state is responsible except that [former state Treasurer Andy Dillon] did make the ultimate decision so we're not able to avoid the subject," Muchmore wrote in the Sept. 25 email, referring to Dillon's decision to switch the source of the city's water supply from Detroit to the Flint River.

Muchmore's comments are part of the 274 pages of emails released by Snyder in an effort to diffuse the growing anger over Flint's poor water quality.

Water quality testing has shown the city's system has been compromised by high levels of lead since April 2014, when the city first started getting water from the Flint River. Some information indicated that local residents had been drinking the contaminated water for up to a year -- even though city, county and state officials knew about the dangers.

On Sept. 26, Muchmore seemed to belittle the situation and local residents, saying, "Now we have the anti everything group turning to the lead content, which is a concern for everyone."

"Of course, some of the Flint people respond by looking for someone to blame instead of working to reduce anxiety," he added. "We can't tolerate increased lead levels in any event, but it's really the city's water system that needs to deal with it."

In one memo, officials outlined the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and reiterated that the law requires the city's water to be "safe" to drink.

"The act does not [sic] regulate aesthetic values of water. Here are some factors affecting the aesthetics of water in Flint," the Feb. 3 memo said.

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