Crises like Flint are inevitable when politicians and industries insist on playing with matches

Bureaucracy and pressures from high-powered industry officials combine to jeopardize public health.
Bureaucracy and pressures from high-powered industry officials combine to jeopardize public health.
Image: AP Photo/Seth Perlman
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Years ago, I worked as an environmental regulator. The site was a former machining facility perched on a hill with a slug of solvent underfoot. The community in which it was located was a working-class New England town; the neighborhood, a cluster of late 1970s-era split-level homes surrounding an industrial park. On paper, the layout was lovely: industry and homes convenient to each other and the highway, yet out of sight from one another thanks to a patch of forest. In the fall, the trees would turn a vibrant red in the fall, the kind of shade that pops against a bluebird sky and makes you nostalgic for donuts and apple cider.

The activity on the hill was considered ‘light’ industry—no smokestacks or heavy machinery, no menacing noises or noxious smells. The hum of equipment was contained inside a rectangular warehouse, where precision stamping, cutting, and drawing neatly transformed thin sheets of metal into seamless three-dimensional shapes. The factory was a quiet, good neighbor, except that the cutting oils and solvents they used in the process were toxic and chronically spilled onto the production floor and loading dock. The fluid traveled through the concrete and seeped into the ground underneath. The factory was a quiet, good neighbor, except that the contaminated ground water flowed down the hill and into the faucets of the homes below.

Luckily, we’d caught the problem relatively early. By the time the contamination was discovered, the drinking water wells we sampled had trace concentrations of volatile organic compounds. Only a few of them had high enough levels of vinyl chloride to exceed the water quality standard. But the fact that vinyl chloride was even detected told us that the original contaminant, tetrachloroethylene (PCE), had been in the ground long enough to morph into its more toxic form. We had no way of knowing how long these people might have been exposed.

We ordered carbon filtration units to be installed on the impacted wells. I would drop by different residents’ homes to be sure that the treatment systems were all working as they should. One day, a homeowner told me that his wife had just been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Could it have been caused by the water?

His question hung in the musty space of his basement. I steadied my concentration on the sample I was collecting in 40 mL vials—slowly lowering the lid over the dome-shaped meniscus of water, gently taking care to capture a sample void of air.

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I recall a flash of heat running through my body. I imagine that I reassured him the way regulators are trained to do, explaining that the contamination appeared to have been caught early in his well, and that cancer doesn’t happen overnight. There was no way of knowing whether his wife’s condition was directly linked to the site.

He nodded, hands in his pockets, eyes fixed upon a crack in the floor. But the question still remained. I remember smiling sympathetically and tapping the vial against my palm, checking for evidence of air.

I often think of that moment in the basement—especially now, in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the more recent discovery of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in drinking water supply wells of Hoosick Falls, New York. Environmental regulators have a bad reputation at the moment—like NASA engineers after the Challenger disaster, or police officers in the days after another unnecessary shooting of a citizen.

I can only imagine what it must be like to be the regulators implicated in these disasters. It’s been a long time since I worked as a state government bureaucrat, so I can’t remember exactly how big my caseload was. But I know that it was roughly twice as big as what I could reasonably manage. What I mean is that my colleagues and I were only able to actively oversee about half of what the public entrusted and expected us to oversee.

Our shorthanded status was a function of the political climate, the financial limitations of our regulatory agency, and the complex industrial history of the state in which we worked. We relied on a triage approach: Is anybody drinking it? Falling asleep at the wheel on sites like the Saint-Gobain facility in Hoosick Falls was a chronic, nagging concern. Being a bureaucrat in the environmental and public health sector often felt to me like working as a firefighter with one truck and one hose, while knowing that everyone around us was playing with matches.

Matches, it turns out, come in all kinds of different forms. Drinking water emergencies can result from decades of industrial activity in concentrated areas and poorly planned land-use decisions—like my machine shop on the top of the hill, with all the houses and wells situated further down. Environmental health disasters can flare up from chemical spills and abandoned sites—dry cleaners, auto body shops, old industrial facilities. Or they might be smoldering around an industry on which the livelihood of an entire community depends, so that the social and political will to hold the company accountable for its mess is dissolved by the fear of a big employer leaving town.

I once had a big meeting with the owner and trustees of a certain metal finishing facility, during which I suggested that environmental compliance costs needed to be figured into the operational budget, just like the cost of raw materials. “That’s never gonna happen!” the owner barked at me, and went on to complain to his elected official. A few days later, my supervisor and I got a missive from the higher-ups to “work with them.”

The general public takes comfort in the regulatory systems designed to prevent such disasters—monitoring public drinking water systems, for instance. But as we have learned from the Flint and Hoosick Falls crises, these systems are not failsafe, either. In Flint, the damage inflicted by the desire to cut costs, followed by inadequate sampling and analysis protocols, effectively unraveled the safety net. In Hoosick Falls, and the DuPont site in Parkersburg, West Virginia area prior to that, the contaminant of concern, PFOA, was not even on the list of chemicals regulators were expected to oversee. If not for the inquiring minds of Hoosick Falls resident Michael Hickey, whose father worked at Saint-Gobain for 32 years and succumbed to kidney cancer without any significant risk factors beyond his occupational exposure to PFOA, and the community’s primary care physician, Marcus Martinez, who noticed the elevated incidence of rare cancers for a community of its size, the environmental health disaster in Hoosick Falls would still remain unknown.

The unknowns are perhaps the most distressing of challenges to the environmental regulator—the unknown nature of what chemicals are even out there, the uncertainty regarding their behavior in soil, air, and water once they are released into the world, and the incomplete knowledge we have regarding their toxicity to human health.

When the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 was passed, the Environmental Protection Agency required safety testing for only 200 of the 62,000 existing chemicals that were “grandfathered” under the law. TSCA does not require companies to evaluate health effects of exposure to the new chemicals that are introduced to the marketplace—meaning that toxicity is not known for most of the 85,000 industrial chemicals currently in use. And under our existing regulatory system, most chemicals for which human health effects are not yet known are by default unregulated and considered safe until proven otherwise. These are the conditions that create perfect storms like the one currently unfolding in upstate New York.

The media dig through correspondence records to catch a bureaucratic mistake, looking to see when the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health were first informed of the contamination. Meanwhile, PFOA is so prevalent, so ubiquitous that it can be detected in the blood of nearly every American citizen—and remains to this day largely unstudied and untested, dancing on the fringes of regulatory authority. A scandal? Yes, indeed. But perhaps the public shaming should also be focused somewhere else.

The regulatory community is not above reproach. Regulators make mistakes. Some of them are bad actors. The situation in Flint provided ample evidence of that. Still, I would venture to say that most public sector environmental health professionals conduct their work with honesty and integrity. In the agency where I worked, if a drinking water crisis materialized on a Friday afternoon, we stayed late enough to make sure affected families would receive bottled water before we went home. After all, helping people was exactly why most of us did the work we did. Going home to cook dinner for our own families in kitchens with unaffected taps only underscored the importance of that mission. For most of us, moments of inadequate response usually represented circumstances where our hands were tied by legal, economic, or political factors.

I encountered many such circumstances during my brief career as an environmental bureaucrat. During my first year with the remediation section of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, for instance, a political stand-off between then-governor John Rowland and the state employees union resulted in the dismissal of over 2,000 public service employees, including the entire staff of the state laboratory responsible for conducting analyses of soil and water samples for our environmental investigations. Though the staffing of my own section remained intact, our ability to address environmental health hazards was severely compromised. We spent a lot of time and resources maneuvering around the political obstacle to continue doing our work.

Such limitations on the authority and resources needed to protect our communities—whether through slashed funding or loopholes offered to politically-connected industries—are not new or unexpected. But they can wear regulators down, and they do make everything worse.

My daughters love to watch the show “Cutthroat Kitchen,” in which competitors must produce dishes in an environment rife with sabotage. But at the end of the round, the chefs must present their entrees, with the judges unaware of, and uninterested in, the insurmountable challenges behind the scenes. Sometimes the job doesn’t get done. Sometimes the obstacles are too difficult to overcome.

And sometimes you find yourself collecting water samples in a cancer patient’s basement, and her husband wants to know if the water contamination is responsible for her disease. You feel the air leaving the room. But you can’t say a thing, because the truth is you don’t know. There’s too much uncertainty for anyone to really know for sure. That’s the system you are paid to work within. That’s what gives the industry, and the politicians they sponsor, peace of mind.