Six years after the Flint water crisis made national headlines, EPA and Michigan remain
in the drinking water spotlight
While the USEPA was grabbing headlines recently in the Great Lakes region with the announcement of the $1 billion windfall it was bestowing on the region, the EPA’s internal watchdog was taking a look back.
The Inspector General’s office announced it will investigate EPA’s role in the Benton Harbor lead in the drinking water crisis from last summer and beyond. The crisis where Michigan’s Department of Environment of Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) slow-walked taking action to notify citizens about elevated lead levels in drinking water, according to citizens and activists.
Slow-walked to the point that a coalition formed and petitioned the EPA to use its emergency authority to intervene. That’s similar to how EPA had to intervene in Flint
In a letter to Radhika Fox, the administrator for water and Debra Shore, the Great Lakes region administrator with responsibility for Michigan, the IG said it would be looking at the agency’s “elevation policy.”
The elevation policy was a product of the Flint water crisis where the IG’s office was critical of the agency for failing to elevate the issue up the chain of command.
In the Flint crisis, regional administrator Susan Hedman resigned under pressure for her handling of the issue.
The state of Michigan recently settled a $600 million citizen suit brought by Flint citizens. A similar negligence suit against the EPA is still pending in federal court.
The Flint report cited “management weaknesses” that delayed the EPA response on Flint.
IG investigations take time, then more time to be written and released so don’t expect anything soon. But just the fact that it’s looking at the Benton Harbor crisis speaks volumes.
It’s Flint redux.
Economically disadvantaged Black community struggles to maintain a deteriorating water system. Citizens and activists, some veterans of the Flint crisis, seek help from the responsible state agency then appeal to the EPA for an intervention.
Did Michigan and the EPA not learn anything from Flint? I suspect the Inspector General will have an opinion.
Tribal leader calls out USEPA for lack of emphasis on protection in restoration program. In rare candid remarks, says Lake Superior degradation is ongoing and without a plan to stop it.
I've been attending conferences of various sorts about Great Lakes restoration since 2006. And one thing is a given; the collection of activists and others peripheral to the cause of restoring the Great Lakes will be as close to perfection as possible when it comes to speaking with one voice.
They've mastered the art of defining the message and repeating it ad infinitum, no deviations. Be it the Great Lakes are a "national treasure" or money is the key to restoring the lakes or their hyper-emphasis on collaboration like its an outcome instead of a process.
That's why it was refreshing to attend a recent Great Lakes restoration workshop sponsored by the
non-profit Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. The purpose was to brief journalists about what's happening with restoring the lakes in light of the $1 billion funding windfall the restoration program will soon receive.
And many of the smart, hardworking and well-intentioned people who've been working on restoration for years were there presenting and for the most part, they repeated a variation of the same messages from 10-15 years ago.
But there was a refreshing exception, Michael "Mic" Isham, an Ojibwe Tribal executive and leader. He represented the Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and he too, has been part of the restoration establishment for years.
But Isham was willing to deviate from the approved talking point script. He acknowledged a few of the virtues of the restoration program then spoke candidly about its shortcomings. Like the neglect of Lake Superior which he said is suffering ongoing, unaddressed degradation exposing it to "death by 1,000 cuts."
Isham said to get federal funding for restoration projects you have to hit metrics, but Tribal projects don't easily produce quick, quantifiable results. They are based on Seventh Generation and Traditional Ecological Knowledge principles that take time and don't work well within budget cycles, but are no less worthy.
And perhaps most important, Isham dared to criticize the program's hyper-focus on restoration while not including protection in its mission. What good is it to restore if we don't protect and prevent, he said.
But the consensus is that the Great Lakes restoration works so don't tamper with it. And there's a darker side to that picture. Program supporters don't want to do anything that could cause Congress to examine the program. That's because it brings a lot of federal money to the region.
I was assigned to write a story based on the workshop and there were two tracks I could take. The safe, "the Great Lakes restoration program is an incredible success but there's more work to do" route. That's the forever talking point. Or put a spotlight on Isham's priorities, the need to protect the lakes and reduce reliance on metrics to justify funding and define success.
Here's my headline.
Federal Great Lakes restoration program should focus on protection and flexibility, says Ojibwe leader.
The story is here.
Note: This was updated on Feb 13.
Chicago-based environmental journalist