Above Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS. Former EPA Region 5 administrator Susan Hedman, pictured, has denied that the agency retaliated against whistleblower Miguel Del Toral. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
WASHINGTON — Miguel Del Toral is a regulations manager for the Environmental Protection Agency who began investigating the water woes in Flint, Michigan, early last year.
Congressional investigators say the EPA punished Del Toral for blowing the whistle on the Flint water crisis. As evidence, this week they released an email in which Del Toral complained his supervisors were treating him like office furniture.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee publicized its emails as part of an ongoing investigation into what happened in Flint, where thousands of city kids were exposed to high levels of lead in the water. Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who will testify before the committee on Thursday, has admitted the state failed to make sure Flint treated its water correctly to prevent it from corroding the city’s lead pipes and carrying lead to people’s faucets.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin and ingesting even small amounts can cause a host of health problems, including permanent brain damage in children.
The Del Toral controversy started in June after he drafted a memo that clearly outlined the problem in Flint.
“A major concern from a public health standpoint is the absence of corrosion control treatment in the City of Flint for mitigating lead and copper levels in the drinking water,” Del Toral wrote. “Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water, which is to be expected in a public water system that is not providing corrosion control treatment.”
The memo wasn’t supposed to be released, but a reporter obtained a copy from a Flint resident whose water Del Toral had tested for lead. Dayne Walling, Flint’s mayor at the time, reached out to the EPA for help answering questions about the memo, since the state water authorities were saying everything was fine.
Susan Hedman, then the EPA’s administrator for the Midwest, told Walling in a July email that Del Toral’s memo was a draft that “should not have been released outside the agency.” Walling and state officials then brushed off questions about the report, saying Del Toral didn’t speak for the EPA — which seemed to take a neutral stance on Flint’s lead situation.
As his alarming investigation into Flint’s water came to light, the newly released emails show Del Toral was denied permission to attend a meeting with public health officials in Milwaukee — and he thought his work on Flint was the reason why.
“I told you about this project during the checkins as well as in my performance review, so I am not sure what you intend by your message,” Del Toral responded to a supervisor. “It almost sounds like I’m to be stuck in a corner holding up a potted plant because of Flint.”
Del Toral’s superiors denied they were retaliating against him. At a congressional hearing on Tuesday, Hedman, who has since resigned, repeated those denials. She called Del Toral a hero and said she recommended him for an award while maintaining the EPA did nothing wrong in Flint.
Other emails the House Oversight Committee released Tuesday show Del Toral disagreed sharply that summer with the EPA’s decision not to slap Flint with a violation that would require it to notify the public it had failed to treat the water correctly. The EPA didn’t issue an emergency order until January, when Hedman resigned.
In September, after pediatricians with the Hurley Medical Center in Flint used their own data on children’s blood lead levels to show a spike in lead poisoning, Del Toral sent an epic I-told-you-so to his colleagues.
“You have a city that has lead lines and no treatment that is collecting pre-flushing which we know can easily miss very high lead levels. We do nothing to stop that,” Del Toral wrote, referring to the city’s questionable practice of telling residents to run their taps prior to filling bottles for lead testing. Flushing the taps before collecting water can result in lower lead levels in the water, hiding the problem.
Over the summer, independent analysis by Marc Edwards, a civil engineer with Virginia Tech, showed elevated lead levels in Flint’s water, but the EPA kept quiet as state officials downplayed Edwards’ findings.
“We have an independent group taking samples that show much higher lead levels and what do people do? They question the VT data,” Del Toral wrote. “At every stage of this process, it seems that we spend more time trying to maintain State/local relationship than we do trying to protect the children.”
Here is Del Toral’s letter, in full:
This is no surprise. lead lines + no treatment = high lead in water = lead poisoned children.
You have a city that has lead lines and no treatment that is collecting pre-flushing which we know can easily miss very high lead levels. We do nothing to stop that.
We have an independent group taking samples that show much higher lead levels and what do people do? They question the VT data, rather than saying anything about the City’s data from sampling that we know can miss the lead and on top of that we just found out the city may have lied on the reporting forms to [the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] in stating that all of the sites they used had lead service lines when they apparently do not have any information that they could possibly have used to make those determinations. To mean that means you have to throw out both rounds of data unless they can provide the supporting documentation. And since they admitted they do not have it, what do we do? Nothing again?
I can’t recall what R5 decided on the MI disinvestments, but I very seriously hope that we did not allow MDEQ NOT to issue violations for failure to submit the [federal Lead and Copper Rule] reporting forms. It is only by way of having these forms from Flint that we became aware that what they reported for each of the monitoring sites is not true. If I am a lawyer, and someone puts down on a form that every site is a lead line site, and they cannot produce a single piece of information that they used to make the determination that they are lead line sites… isn’t that false reporting at a minimum? And when all of this results in a town full of lead-poisoned children, doesn’t that mean anything to anyone?
Even worse, absent anything from EPA, MDEQ and the City, other than ‘they are in full compliance’ other folks have to alert the public to the risk. We now have data from yet another independent group that appears to show that the children are in fact, being poisoned.
At every stage of this process, it seems that we spend more time trying to maintain State/local relationship than we do trying to protect the children. I said this from the very beginning and I will say this again…you don’t have to drop a bowling ball off of every building in every city to prove that gravity (and science) will work the same way everywhere. It’s basic chemistry.
There is nothing that can be done in the immediate future with respect to treatment that can prevent more children from being further damaged. Someone needs to require that the residents of Flint be provided with water filters until they can fix the treatment.
Sorry for the rant, but i am very upset about this because I told people this was going to be the outcome. I watched this movie before in Washington, DC [which suffered a similar lead water crisis in the early 2000s]. and we are heading down the exact same path of denial and delay and meanwhile, the children are being irreparably damaged.