Whistle-blower Del Toral grew tired of EPA ‘cesspool’

Miguel Del Toral
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Jim Lynch | The Detroit News | 1:16 am EDT March 29, 2016

A previously unreleased U.S. Environmental Protection Agency email shows the agency’s Midwest whistle-blower pleaded with superiors to protect Flint residents from lead contamination and railed against their failure to do so.

Flint Water Plant along Dort Highway
Todd McInturf / The Detroit News

In the June 2015 communication, Region 5’s Regulations Manager Miguel Del Toral — called a “hero” by the agency’s top official — described the EPA as “a cesspool” for officials’ reluctance to act on what he perceived as an obvious public health threat.

Del Toral even asked his superiors for permission to do additional water testing in Flint on his own dime to prove his assertions of widespread lead contamination.

In response to a Detroit News inquiry about the email on Monday, Del Toral apologized to colleagues for how he characterized the agency last year.

The June 25 email, in response to questions from EPA Region 5 official Rita Bair, speaks of hurdles created for federal environmental staffers and highlights problems with Michigan’s lead-testing procedures that helped mask the presence of lead.

“Sorry for the rant, but I am really getting tired of the bad actors being ignored, and people trying to do the right thing are constantly being subjected to intense scrutiny as if we were doing something wrong,” he wrote.

While Del Toral didn’t specifically identify the “bad actors,” the reference came after he outlined his view that Flint officials, by their water testing methods, were intentionally thwarting lead counts with the complicity of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, to hide the high lead levels from the public. Not warning the public, he wrote, “borders on criminal neglect.”

“It’s all of this ‘don’t find anything bad’ crap at EPA that is (the) reason I desperately want to leave,” Del Toral wrote. “I am not happy to find bad things. ... It is completely stressful because it means children are being damaged and I have to put up with all of the political crap, but where these problems exist, I will not ignore them.

“I truly, truly hate working here.”

Del Toral sent the email soon after an internal memo he wrote outlining the dangers in Flint’s water system first circulated in EPA circles. The memo marked a key point in the Flint saga because EPA officials were made aware of the looming public health risk, but downplayed its significance and, some congressional lawmakers argue, retaliated against Del Toral for writing it.

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, had harsh words Monday for the EPA in connection with the Del Toral email.

“I’m appalled by EPA’s dereliction of duty, but not surprised,” Chaffetz, the Utah Republican, said in an email response to questions. “This seems to be a pattern of incompetence at the EPA. EPA had the authority to intervene and didn’t, despite an internal plea from their own expert. If this isn’t what the EPA is for, then I don’t know why it even exists.”

On Monday night, after a Detroit News request for comment, EPA officials responded with a statement from Del Toral in which he described himself as “frustrated” at the time he wrote the email.

“My EPA colleagues and I were working very hard to fix what was happening in Flint, and I felt we weren’t making progress,” according to the statement. “I wish to apologize to my EPA colleagues for my ‘cesspool’ comment as I have worked with truly dedicated public servants over the past 28+ years who have devoted their entire careers to public health protection, and especially to all my EPA colleagues who have been working in Flint to get the water system back on track.

“While I understand and support the need to assess the failures in Flint to make sure this never happens again, my personal sense is that the primary focus at every level of government right now should be on fixing Flint as quickly as humanly possible.”

‘The State is complicit’

Another part of the June email by Del Toral targets state of Michigan and Flint officials for their own failures. As early as April 2015, he discovered the city, under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, was not adding corrosion controls to drinking water pulled from the Flint River.

The lack of chemical treatment resulted in lead contamination. It may also have contributed to a spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases during the 18 months Flint used the river, with 88 cases and 10 deaths.

“I understand that this is not a comfortable situation, but the State is complicit in this and the public has a right to know what they are doing because it is their children that are being harmed,” Del Toral wrote. “At a MINIMUM, the city should be warning residents about the high lead, not hiding it telling them there is no lead in the water.”

Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman wrote in a July 1 email to Flint Mayor Dayne Walling that the Del Toral preliminary draft report “should not have been released outside the agency,” and would undergo revisions and vetting. She has since resigned.

Del Toral’s efforts on Flint’s problems came up during three congressional hearings during the past two months. During the last hearing on March 17, Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, accused EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy of having “gagged” Del Toral after his memo came out.

“This Mr. Del Toral should get a Congressional Gold Medal,” Mica said while holding up the original memo. “You can read (his) report — it’s incredibly accurate. This is dated in June and not a damn thing was done until, really, January of this year.”

In defending her agency at the hearing, McCarthy said EPA did not receive evidence of a “systemic problem” until July 21 — several weeks after Del Toral’s first memo.

“If people are worried about whether we silenced Miguel Del Toral, Miguel is a hero on this,” she said. “He remains a central part of our decision-making. He’s one of our experts we rely on.”

But Del Toral in the June email emphatically urged immediate action — weeks before the date cited by McCarthy.

“The widespread high lead is (in) my judgment based on a couple of decades of working with lead issues and I stand by it despite the limited data set from Flint ...,” he wrote. “They have had no corrosion control treatment in place for over a year now and they have lead service lines. It’s just basic chemistry on lead solubility. You will have high lead leaching into the water where you are doing nothing to mitigate that ...

“We don’t need to drop a bowling ball off every building in every town to know that it will fall to the ground in all of these places.”

Wish to fund own Flint trip

Del Toral even offered to go to Flint, at his own expense, to prove the accuracy of what he was saying.

“If there truly is a question in anyone’s mind that there is a widespread lead problem in Flint, despite the painfully clear science, I am requesting that I be provided two assistants and that you folks allow me to go and sample 100 homes in Flint without pre-flushing and then we can satisfy any doubts that anyone may have,” he wrote. “I am not even asking for per diem and I’ll pay my own hotel.”

On Monday night, an EPA spokeswoman said Del Toral’s email underscored that there was no evidence of a systemic lead contamination problem, and that suspicions of widespread lead contamination were based on results from a mere three homes.

Emails: State mum on Flint Legionnaires’ warning

Additional information pointing to a wider problem did not come from MDEQ until July 21.

“As the Flint Water Advisory Task Force definitively outlined in their final report, MDEQ ‘stubbornly worked to discredit and dismiss’ any individual or entity attempting to bring to light issues with the drinking water,” EPA’s Monica Lee said. “MDEQ strong armed and misled the Agency to a point that we weren’t able to do our jobs effectively.”

EPA’s perceived lack of urgency in alerting the public to Flint’s contaminated water became a flash point during the March 17 hearing, which also involved Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. While four House Oversight Democrats called for Snyder to resign, three committee Republicans called for McCarthy to resign, a declaration Chaffetz repeated Monday.

“Instead, an employee trying to do the right thing was silenced and intimidated,” Chaffetz said in the Monday statement. “The EPA has a deep-seated cultural problem and until Administrator McCarthy resigns, these failures and abuses will continue.”

‘Miguel is a hero’

The EPA chief said on March 17 her agency was misled by Michigan environmental officials for months, leaving her agency with “insufficient” information to indicate a systemic lead problem in Flint until last summer.

“Looking back on Flint, from Day One, the state provided our regional office with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information,” McCarthy said. “Their interactions with us were intransigent, misleading and contentious.”

EPA’s Lee elaborated on the agency’s response to Del Toral’s work.

“As Administrator McCarthy said in the hearing, Miguel is a hero and an expert EPA relies on as an integral part of the Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force,” Lee wrote. “It was MDEQ who attempted to discredit Miguel, and MDEQ who told people he was a rogue employee.”

In a Sept. 11 email sent from a personal account, EPA Michigan Program Manager Jennifer Crooks instructed Michigan environmental regulators on how to “truthfully” tell “the Legislature or whoever” that they had never officially received Del Toral’s report.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech University researcher whose water testing helped prove the presence of high levels of lead in Flint’s water, also argues Del Toral was retaliated against.

“Standard retaliation for heroic actors in government science agencies is to watch as your legitimate concerns are ignored, ethical actions are termed ‘inappropriate,’ harm to the public continues unabated, friends stand silent in acquiescence to the shunning, and your reputation is publicly discredited,” Edwards said in an email response to questions. “Mr. Del Toral was given the full treatment.”

Early in 2015, Del Toral helped Flint resident LeeAnne Walters identify the lead problems in her home. From the end of February through mid-July, she said, she was in constant contact with the EPA water expert.

In June, before composing his memo on Flint’s water problems, Del Toral called and asked Walters for permission to include data on her home. Several weeks later, after the memo came out, Walters said she received a curious follow-up call.

“He was telling me that he couldn’t talk to me anymore,” she said, adding that she believed it to be a directive from Del Toral’s superiors. “He said he couldn’t talk to anybody from Flint or about Flint.”

jlynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034

Originally Published 11:59 pm EDT March 28, 2016
Updated 1:16 am EDT March 29, 2016
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