I just heard on NPR an interview with former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (Morning Edition, 12 August 2017) in which she criticized the Trump Administration for not protecting the environment. Ms McCarthy has been under attack plenty of times herself. She was asked to resign as EPA Administrator by more than one member of Congress for her agency’s failure to take action in the Flint lead in water crisis. In today’s interview, she made no mention of the EPA’s botched response to the Flint water crisis, but it prompted me to review that response given McCarthy’s current role as a public critic of the agency. If she, a supposed champion of ensuring public access to clean drinking water, and with a supposedly supportive Obama Administration backing her up, could be “misled” and “strong-armed” so that they “could not do our jobs effectively,” what hope is there that any agency can or will protect the public’s drinking water?
McCarthy has been vilified by both sides of the debate over environmental regulation. There is plenty to cheer as well as to jeer about her record on protecting the environment. On one hand, she championed the Clean Water Rule and the importance of upgrading aging water infrastructure. On the other hand, she failed to intervene and even defends her agency’s response to Miguel Del Toral’s reports of water contamination in Flint, Michigan in June 2015. In her testimony before a House Committee in March 2016, McCarthy claimed her agency was “misled” by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. McCarthy’s subordinate, former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, also blamed MDEQ for covering up the problem, as did the former mayor of Flint Dayne Walling and even the former state appointed emergency manager, Darnell Earley (who is facing felony charges in connection with his decisions as Flint Emergency Manager). All of them claim they did all they could. And yet the water in Flint is still not safe to drink.
MDEQ’s alleged attempts to mislead, or their failure to ensure corrosion control treatment of Flint’s water is even less shocking to me than the fact that the federal agency charged with overseeing enforcement of the LCR could be “strong-armed” by the agency it is charged to regulate. McCarthy claimed in a Congressional hearing in March, 2016 that “we had everything in place we needed to prevent this from happening…the state failed to implement and enforce appropriately.” Really? This strikes me as blaming the fox for failing to enforce the rules that are supposed to keep foxes out of the henhouse. The fox didn’t make the rules, it is just being a fox. At least Governor Snyder apologized and admitted failure of his administration to handle the crisis, and his attorney general has brought charges against several state and city officials involved in the case. I’ve seen no such attempts at accountability at the federal level.
Curious to know what McCarthy had to say upon leaving her post as EPA administrator, I found an interview by the Washington Post on 21 December 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/12/21/outgoing-epa-chief-science-is-everything-it-is-fundamental-to-absolutely-everything-we-do/?utm_term=.86c033356d53), just as she was leaving the EPA to be replaced by Trump appointee Scott Pruitt. McCarthy said her biggest regret as EPA Administrator was the agency’s inability to connect with rural communities in the way it had succeeded in doing with mayors of urban cities. She made a good point about the need to address source water pollution to prevent the requirement for huge investments in treatment facilities downstream. Only when pressed by the interviewer did she mention Flint. She said Flint’s water is getting fixed, but its economic problems continue to contribute to its environmental issues. “They have neighborhoods where they have one person living in them. You can’t service one person in a system like that without having stagnant water everywhere. Stagnant water is not your friend in a drinking water system. So there are long-term challenges there that have to be fixed. And it’s a real serious question about how the economics work in a city that has such high poverty levels with such high vacancy. It’s like Detroit, only smaller. There needed to be a huge national effort to address that.”
Taking Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou’s class on Experts and the Public helped me to interpret those remarks differently than I would have before. Before taking the class I might have overlooked the shortcomings of people who were otherwise supportive of my position. But after studying the Flint water crisis and other environmental crises like it I am convinced that good intentions and supportive words are not enough. I give McCarthy credit for recognizing the nature of the situation in Flint, that the roots of Flint’s water crisis lay in its deep seated economic problems. But she failed to explain what it was that prevented the EPA from addressing or even acknowledging the problem for so long, whether it was the culture of the EPA or inadequate policy or lack of enforcement tools. Saying “we had what we needed” and then doing nothing because they were “misled” by MDEQ doesn’t cut it. The EPA’s own employee, Miguel Del Toral, sounded the alarm about Flint’s water contamination in June 2015. Even before that, it was Flint resident LeeAnne Walters who alerted Del Toral to the lack of corrosion control treatment in the water. McCarthy is now in a position to be a strong advocate for changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, to close the loopholes which enabled state agencies to wait over a year before applying corrosion control while claiming Flint’s water was “optimized” as required by the LCR. Yes, Flint’s economy needs to be fixed, and the new EPA Administrator is rolling back environmental quality regulations, but McCarthy would be more effective by righting what went wrong under her watch rather than ignoring it.