Science, Tech & Environment

The mom and the EPA 'rogue employee' who exposed Flint's water crisis

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Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

I’ve been trying to interview the Environmental Protection Agency's Miguel Del Toral since early July, 2015, when a copy of his interim report on high lead levels in Flint, Michigan's water landed in my inbox.

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His report was the first time any official had publicly implied that there could be a serious lead problem in Flint's water. But back then, because the report wasn’t finalized, the EPA wouldn’t talk about it with the media.

Behind the scenes, Del Toral’s boss, EPA’s Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, apologized about the way the report was leaked to the press. On Jan. 21, Hedman announced she’d submitted her resignation.

“The preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency,” Hedman wrote to then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling after the ACLU’s investigative reporter, Curt Guyette, asked city officials about it. The report was a “preliminary draft” she wrote, adding, “it would be premature to draw any conclusions based on that draft.”

The draft report details hazardous waste levels of lead in Flint resident Lee Anne Walters’ home. In it, Del Toral raises serious red flags about the lack of corrosion control treatment, something that’s required under federal rules.

These days, Del Toral says he hasn’t been keeping up with all the national news headlines about Flint. Since October, he’s been busy working with a water task force to help resolve Flint’s water problems.

Del Toral was first alerted to Flint’s water problems last spring, when Walters called the EPA to complain about high levels of lead in her tap water and warn officials that her child had been diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Del Toral followed up with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, asking about corrosion control treatment in Flint. Emails show that in February 2015, DEQ staff told Del Toral Flint had a corrosion control program.

But Walters found out from city reports that Flint was not using any corrosion control treatment. This treatment helps prevent lead and other heavy metals from leaching from old pipes into drinking water. Walters called Del Toral right away, and let him know.

“Even though she had told me that, in my head, I was thinking that’s not possible. That’s, you know, I couldn’t believe that was true,” Del Toral says, “I thought there was a misunderstanding here or some kind of miscommunication.”

But Del Toral and Walters had lots of conversations that spring. Walters wanted to get to the bottom of the water problems at her house. She wanted to understand what was going on, Del Toral recalled.

“In getting to know [Walters] and getting to know how quickly she was picking things up and the information she was providing was accurate I thought I better look into this,” he says.

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Lee Anne Walters with her son Garrett outside of her home in Flint, Michigan.

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Sarah Hulett/Michigan Radio

So he started digging for more information, asking the DEQ again what kind of corrosion control treatment Flint was using. DEQ finally acknowledged that there was no treatment in place.

He stopped short of saying the DEQ lied to him about corrosion control.

“I don’t know what anyone’s intention is so I can’t assign intent. But clearly they did not have treatment in place,” he says.

“I was pretty stunned,” he adds.

Del Toral visited Walters' home in April, to help set up a more thorough test of the water.

“I’d received a call that the lead was coming from her plumbing in the house and that she needed to hire a plumber to take care of that,” he says. Older homes can have lead plumbing. But Walters explained to him that she had to replace all the plumbing in the home before her family moved in.

“When I got there I took a look at that and, in fact, it was all plastic. The valves, the pipes, the fittings, the couplings, couple of minor brass connectors, but nothing that would produce the level of lead that we found,” he says.

The levels of lead that Del Toral and Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards found in Walters home were incredibly high. One test registered more than 13,000 parts per billion; almost three times as much as what the EPA classifies as hazardous waste.

Lead levels at the Walters’ home were the highest Del Toral had ever seen.

“The numbers were pretty staggering. I mean, that just, those numbers just blew my mind. I couldn’t believe them,” he says.

It turns out Walters' water service line was unusually long. Instead of connecting to the water main in front of her home, it stretched down to another street.

But Del Toral noted something I had not known before: That those tests were done about three weeks after the city had shut Walters water off. The city had used garden hoses to connect her home with safer water through her neighbors' home. So Del Toral says the water that had thousands of parts per billions of lead had likely been pooling in that old pipe for a few weeks.

Before Del Toral drafted the interim report that first alerted the media to the EPA’s concerns, he and others within the federal agency, met via conference calls with state environmental regulators. The EPA insisted corrosion control treatment was required. But state officials disagreed, saying they needed time to assess Flint’s new water source first.

“There were no surprises in that memo,” Del Toral says. “Obviously, we had talked about all the issues with [the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality]."

It appears no one told DEQ’s then-spokesman Brad Wurfel. In emails, Wurfel asked staff to tell him about the report.

The next day, Wurfel started our recorded interview this way: “Let me start here – anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax,” Wurfel says back in July.

With word from EPA officials that the interim report should not have been released and was not finalized, Wurfel went on to call Del Toral a “rogue employee.” Wurfel has since resigned from his position.  

“It was pretty shocking to see some of these things” reported in the media, Del Toral says.

“Looking at them in hindsight, people maybe didn’t understand, is the only thing I can think of. Because clearly if you did understand, first of all, it’s just inconceivable that somebody would not require the [corrosion control] treatment in the first place. So that was kind of the biggest shock if you will. Following some of that, the statements, it just, it was really surprising to see a government agency saying the things that they were saying, I guess,” he says.

Del Toral says he did get some pushback within the EPA for releasing the report. But he says the agency’s main concern wasn’t that he gave it to Walters, who requested a copy. The concerns were mainly over erroneous reports that Del Toral had given it directly to the media. In fact, Walters gave it to the ACLU’s Curt Guyette, who eventually forwarded it to Michigan Radio.

In Michigan Radio’s documentary about the Flint water crisis, Guyette praised Del Toral as a hero, who leaked the report over fears that Flint’s residents were unknowingly being exposed to lead in their water.

Having worked on lead regulations since the early 1990s, Del Toral says there was some truth to that.

“I saw what was coming, and I guess the inability to affect that was really stressful,” Del Toral says. He knew DEQ wasn’t going to require Flint to implement proper treatment for some time, if at all. He wanted the report to spur some urgency.

“I thought that [the report] was going out. I [copied] all the state folks to keep them in the loop as well... I had expected that it would go out. It was an interim report that I did expect to be shared,” he says.

But Del Toral doesn’t think he’s a hero.

“If there was a hero it was Lee Anne [Walters],” he says. “This wasn’t affecting her family anymore. They had stopped drinking the water. She could have just sat at home and she didn’t. She kept calling me, asking for information throughout."

This story was originally published by Michigan Radio.