U.S. EPA chief urges states to do more on safe drinking water

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The problems that led to Flint, Michigan’s water crisis must not be repeated in other U.S. cities and states, the top U.S. environmental health official said on Monday.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy announces steps under the Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants during a news conference in Washington June 2, 2014. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

“The situation has to change. We need a national conversation to make sure this never happens again,” Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told local government leaders at the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference.

The crisis in Flint, a predominantly black city of 100,000, was triggered when an emergency city manager installed by Governor Rick Snyder switched the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the nearby Flint River to save money.

The change corroded Flint’s aging pipes and released lead and other toxins into the water supply, exposing thousands of residents including children to high lead levels that have sparked serious health problems.

The crisis prompted national outrage and led to calls for Snyder to resign. A group of Flint parents and their children filed a class action on Monday alleging that 17 children have elevated levels of lead.

McCarthy said she sent letters last week to the 50 U.S. governors and top state environmental and health officials telling them it is “time to work together with EPA to keep our drinking water safe.”

The Feb. 29 letters to state environmental officials asked for a response within 30 days to confirm states are in compliance with federal rules to address lead risks.

EPA has said fixing U.S. water infrastructure will cost more than $600 billion over the next 30 years. “Let’s start getting serious,” McCarthy said. “Grow up. Let’s tackle this issue.”

McCarthy and Snyder will testify before Congress on the Flint water crisis on March 17.

McCarthy blamed financial reasons for Michigan’s approval of the decision to shift Flint’s water supply to the Flint River. “There was simply one reason that I can think of - it is called money, money,” she said.

Snyder has denied that. “This was never about money. This was a failure of government at all levels that could be described as a massive error of bureaucracy,” he said on Twitter on Sunday.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have called on Snyder to step down over his handling of the crisis.

The EPA is investigating why it failed to do more to address Flint’s water concerns. The regional head of the EPA resigned after criticism of EPA actions on Flint. McCarthy said “where there is a problem we admit it and we take action.”

EPA staff plans to meet with all U.S. state top water officials as the agency prepares to implement a new rule on lead and copper in drinking water. McCarthy wants states to do a better job of alerting the public quickly to lead problems and ensuring they are fully enforcing current rules.

Editing by Matthew Lewis