In early October of 2015, as the Flint water crisis neared a boiling point, the Natural Resources Defense Council had seen enough inaction by state of Michigan and Flint officials.
Saying the situation in Flint posed an “imminent and substantial endangerment to human health,” the NRDC went to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for relief. The EPA has oversight responsibility over states on drinking water.
It filed a formal petition with the EPA to intervene in Flint using its emergency authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act as Michigan and Flint agencies were failing to act.
In mid-December, the EPA responded with a written “status update.”
The agency said the NRDC petition “arguably” didn’t meet the threshold that required a response and it cited steps taken by Michigan and Flint to improve the situation.
The response letter was signed by Chicago-based regional administrator Susan Hedman.
NRDC issued a strong rebuke.
“The EPA’s reluctance to exhibit any meaningful leadership role in Flint reflects an unfortunate pattern of government officials in this case absolving themselves of any responsibility or wrongdoing,” NRDC’s environmental justice attorney, Anjali Waikar wrote in a blog post reacting to the EPA’s response.
The EPA eventually declared an emergency in Flint and intervened in late January 2016.
Susan Hedman submitted her resignation largely based on the fact that that her office knew as early as April of 2015 that Flint wasn’t properly treating its water. Hedman deferred action for months while she waited for attorneys to advise on the agency’s legal authority.
Hedman reported to Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator at the time, who referred to her decision to resign as “courageous.”
Fast forward to November 2019 and McCarthy is appointed to head the NRDC.
“Gina McCarthy is one of the most effective environmental champions of our time,” said Alan Horn, chair of NRDC’s Board of Trustees, in a release announcing the appointment.
“She’s committed to making sure we leave our children a just and livable world, which lies at the heart of NRDC’s mission as we enter our 50th year,” said Horn.
McCarthy’s appointment received wide praise.
McCarthy is “smart, courageous and determined – we need more voices like hers for our country and our planet,” former Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement on Twitter.
Congrats, Gina! @nrdc knocked it out of the park here! I loved serving with her in President Obama's “Green Cabinet.” She’s smart, courageous, and determined – we need more voices like hers for our country and our planet. And she’s from Massachusetts too! What’s not to love? https://t.co/6tSbS5n6kS
— John Kerry (@JohnKerry) November 7, 2019
“I am grateful that Gina McCarthy is standing up for all of us, the air we breathe and the water we drink,” said Florida U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor on Twitter.
“Gina (McCarthy) is fiercely dedicated to the public interest, astute politically, and one of the most authentic leaders I’ve ever had the chance to work with,” said Cameron Davis, a senior adviser to McCarthy on Great Lakes issues.
In addition to environmental protection, McCarthy saw her role at the EPA through a “public health lens,” according to Davis.
He declined to comment on McCarthy’s leadership role during the Flint crisis and said he did not have responsibility for any aspect of Flint issues.
Among McCarthy’s priorities will be leading the resistance to the rollback of environmental protections by the Trump administration and promoting climate solutions, according to Horn.
The NRDC release made no mention of its battles with the EPA under McCarthy or that the agency failed to intervene in Flint for months.
“It is beyond understanding that the EPA was paralyzed for 9 months while waiting for a legal opinion on their own powers in the midst of a crisis where an entire city was being poisoned,” NRDC’s former Midwest director Henry Henderson wrote in a January 13, 2016, blog post.
With Flint residents surviving on bottled water, investigations into what went wrong and who was responsible were inevitable. Congress held hearings in March 2015 that featured McCarthy seated next to former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
In the contentious hearing, when asked by Rep. Jason Chaffetz if the EPA had done anything wrong during Flint crisis, McCarthy said, “I don’t know that we did everything right.”
While repeatedly putting the blame for the crisis on Michigan, the concession she made was she had “hoped that (the EPA) would have been more aggressive.”
McCarthy repeated an earlier statement that Hedman’s resignation was “courageous” and disputed that the EPA had the authority to intervene under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The EPA’s inspector general launched an investigation of the agency’s role in Flint and released a report in October 2016 countering McCarthy’s claims.
“The agency had the authority and sufficient information to issue an emergency order to protect Flint, Mich., residents from lead-contaminated water as early as June 2015. The EPA did not issue the emergency order until seven months later, on January 21, 2016,” the office of the inspector general said in a press release.
“These situations should generate a greater sense of urgency,” said EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins.
In a subsequent 2018 report the inspector general cited “management weaknesses” at EPA as a contributor to the delayed federal intervention in Flint.
NRDC’s national media spokesperson Josh Mogerman declined to comment on whether the board considered McCarthy’s role in Flint before it selected her to lead the organization.
McCarthy was not available to answer questions, according to Mogerman.
In a statement, Mogerman reiterated NRDC’s commitment to Flint and other communities dealing with contaminated drinking water.
“Our work in Flint remains ongoing to make sure the job gets done,” said Mogerman.
Flint water crisis followed other officials
Harvard University’s Kennedy School selected former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for a fellowship in June.
Harvard saw value in bringing Snyder to the school to share his experiences—good and bad—with the students. But Snyder would also bring the baggage of his handling of Flint.
Snyder’s administration was directly responsible for failing Flint and he apologized to its citizens in his 2016 State of the State address.
“To you, the people of Flint, I say tonight as I have before, I’m sorry and I will fix it,” said Snyder. Federal, state and local leaders broke the trust that was placed in them, according to Snyder.
But outrage from multiple fronts over the appointment ensued and Snyder withdrew from the fellowship.
“Our current political environment and its lack of civility makes this too disruptive,” he said on Twitter.
McCarthy assumes her position at NRDC on January 6, 2020.
Featured Image: Michigan Air National Guard Senior Airman Scott carries a case of water during water delivery efforts in Flint, Michigan, Photo by U.S. Air National Guard via www.127wg.ang.af.mil