Reported by Michael Bastasch, 01/26/2016
President Barack Obama was quick to condemn Michigan officials for letting high levels of lead contaminate Flint’s drinking water and promised millions of dollars in aid and justice for the city. The same cannot be said for his reaction to the thousands of people who had their drinking water tainted by the Gold King Mine spill in August — a spill caused by his own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It’s a tale of two rivers, both contaminated by government mismanagement, but only one provoked moral outrage from Obama. While Obama said Michigan’s government shouldn’t “shortchange basic services that we provide to our people,” he was virtually silent when his own administration polluted rivers flowing through western states and Indian territory.
Flint’s water is full of lead
“If I was a parent in Flint, I’d be beside myself over my kids’ health,” Obama told auto workers during a visit to Detroit, Mich., Wednesday. Obama had met the day before with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver where he “heard firsthand how the residents of Flint are dealing with the ongoing public health crisis,” according to the White House.
Obama declared a federal emergency and initially gave Michigan $5 million in aid for Flint. That was followed up by a promise of $80 million from the White House to help solve Flint’s water problems.
Obama’s outrage comes after news his own administration knew about lead in Flint’s water for months and did nothing about it. The head of EPA’s regional office resigned over the disaster, and the agency and the White House have launched investigations into the matter.
The White House appointed “a Health and Human Services Department official to lead federal efforts to help the city” last week, according to The Associated Press. EPA’s inspector general opened up its own inquiry into the agency’s handling of the water crisis. “EPA did its job but clearly the outcome was not what anyone would have wanted,” Gina McCarthy told reporters while at an event at a D.C. soup kitchen earlier this month.
“So we’re going to work with the state, we’re going to work with Flint,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to take care of the problem. We know Flint is a situation that never should have happened.”
Flint’s water crisis began in 2014 when the city switched its water supply over from Lake Huron to the Flint River. It was a money-saving effort proposed by state managers while the city was going through massive financial troubles because of its public employee pensions.
The Flint River’s water is more corrosive than Lake Huron’s, meaning treatments were required to keep the water from corroding lead pipes. But Michigan regulators applied the wrong standards, and Flint’s water became contaminated with high levels of lead.
Susan Hedman was made aware of the problems in April after a draft report on the issues was released. Flint’s mayor became aware of the draft report, but Hedman downplayed concerns while she waited for a “legal opinion” on how to proceed.
“The preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency,” Hedman wrote to Flint’s former mayor Dayne Walling in a July email. “When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the city and DEQ will be responsible for following up with the city.”
In October 2015, state officials finally admitted to applying the wrong water treatments to Flint’s drinking water. By January, Hedman had resigned and the Obama administration was moving quickly to give Flint money and investigate the situation.
EPA literally contaminated drinking water in three states
Compare the Obama administration’s response to Flint with its response to a disaster it actually caused.
In August 2015, EPA workers looking to stop mine wastewater leaks from abandoned mines near Silverton, Colo., accidentally ended up unleashing three million gallons of wastewater into the Animas River. The huge orange plume got into the San Juan River and made its way through three states and tribal territory, contaminating drinking water for thousands of people.
EPA did move to work with state officials to combat the spill, but the agency would not tell state and local officials information on how the spill happened or the federal contractors who caused it. The agency also did not notify affected communities for more than 24 hours after the spill happened.
Obama, however, did not issue an emergency declaration, even though Colorado’s governor did. The president also did not make a speech expressing moral outrage at the fact his own administration polluted drinking water for thousands of people with heavy metals — which could stick around in the water for decades.
In August, Obama issued four other disaster declarations for areas hit with heavy flooding and wildfires. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) even rejected pleas from Navajo Nation to help mitigate the damage from the mine blowout — tribal members along the San Juan River are heavily reliant on river water.
The Wall Street Journal eventually broke news on who the federal contractor was onsite when the mine blew out in August. To date, EPA has still been silent on the contractors involved in the spill, citing a nondisclosure agreement. In fact, EPA paid the contracting company, Environmental Restoration LLC, nearly $2.7 million after it caused the massive mine blowout, according to reporting from The Daily Caller News Foundation’s Ethan Barton.
EPA released an internal review of the mine blowout in August claiming the incident was “likely inevitable” despite admitting agency workers ignored “expensive and technically challenging” procedures that could have prevented workers from blowing out the mine that day.
The finding was seen as an attempt by the agency to downplay its role in spilling millions of gallons of mine waste into people’s drinking water. EPA’s report was contradicted by an Department of the Interior technical review of incident, which found the blowout was completely preventable.
What’s more interesting is that, to date, no EPA employee or contractor has been punished or fired for the incident, despite the fact the agency took responsibility for the incident in August. No criminal investigations have been launched by the government into the incident. Instead, EPA officials have been accused of trying to undermine their own inspector general’s investigation into the spill. The nature of the IG’s investigation is unknown, as they don’t comment on details in ongoing investigations.
“[T]he Committee on Natural Resources is troubled by the EPA’s disclosure last week that it had recently interviewed two material witnesses to the EPA’s activities at Gold King Mine,” Republican Reps. Rob Bishop (R) of Utah and Louie Gohmert (TX) – R wrote to EPA’s inspector general.
“Specifically, the Committee is concerned that the EPA’s interview did not follow best investigative practices and may have interfered with the OIG’s ongoing investigation,” the lawmakers wrote to the agency.