WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency had sufficient authority and information to issue an emergency order to protect residents of Flint, Michigan, from lead-contaminated water as early as June 2015 – seven months before it declared an emergency, the EPA’s inspector general said Thursday.

The Flint crisis should have generated “a greater sense of urgency” at the agency to “intervene when the safety of drinking water is compromised,” Inspector General Arthur Elkins said in an interim report.

Flint’s drinking water became tainted when the city began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The impoverished city north of Detroit was under state control at the time. Regulators failed to ensure that water was treated properly and lead from aging pipes leached into the water.

Federal, state and local officials have argued over blame as the crisis continues to force residents to drink bottled or filtered water. Hundreds of children have elevated lead levels.

A panel appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder concluded that the state is “fundamentally accountable” for the lead crisis because of decisions made by state environmental regulators and state-appointed emergency managers controlling the city.

Even so, Snyder and other Republicans have faulted the EPA for a slow response. Last spring, Snyder blamed bureaucrats in Washington and Michigan for the crisis, while apologizing for not acting sooner to resolve it.

The report by the inspector general says officials at the EPA’s Midwest region did not issue an emergency order because they concluded that actions taken by the state prevented the EPA from doing so. The report calls that interpretation incorrect and says that under federal law, when state actions are deemed insufficient, “the EPA can and should proceed with an (emergency) order.”

Without EPA intervention, “the conditions in Flint persisted, and the state continued to delay taking action …,” the report said.

Michigan officials declared a public health emergency in October 2015; the EPA declared an emergency three months later.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has acknowledged that her agency should have been more aggressive in testing the water and requiring changes, but said officials “couldn’t get a straight answer” from the state about what was being done.


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