Flint, MI— Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan made a visit to the Flint Community Water Lab July 7 , meeting with local leaders and youth to discuss solutions to the city’s ongoing water crisis.
He said he hopes to rebuild Flint’s trust in the EPA.
Prior to his tour of the lab, Regan spoke with local leaders Mayor Sheldon Neeley and Congressmen Dan Kildee about “opportunities” for more affordable water in Flint.
“The reason I’m here isn’t because we have all the answers in Washington D.C.. We’re here to learn. We’re going to learn from people who have lived experiences,” Regan said.
Regan spoke about the possible impact of President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal, which would allocate $55 billion to water infrastructure if passed. He said he hopes to bring the community’s ideas and perspectives back to Washington D.C. to further inform the plan.
“What residents can expect are resources that actually match the problem,” Regan said, referring to how the deal could directly affect Flint residents. “This is why this infrastructure package is so important: there is a factual acknowledgement that we have billions and billions of dollars’ worth of needs in this country.”
Regan also said he hopes to regain Flint’s trust in the EPA.
During the water crisis, the EPA failed to prevent and respond effectively to the emergency. This was due, in part, to poor management and lack of oversight by the agency, according to a 2018 report by the Office of Inspector General.
The State of Michigan and The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not comply with the Lead and Copper Rule and the Safe Drinking Water Act, requirements which the EPA is meant to enforce, according to the report. As a result, Flint residents lost trust in all levels of government.
“It’s really a labor of love. People, rightfully so, don’t necessarily trust the government in 2021, that’s no secret. We’ve got to work hard to rebuild and earn the trust of the community. We can’t do that sitting behind desks in Washington, D.C. We’ve got to get out, get into the community, partner with local leaders,” Regan said. “More importantly, we have to deliver for the people. So, we’re putting our heads together, going in the same direction, working with Congress to get the resources, and it’s a journey. And we recognize that.”
During his tour of the Flint Community Water Lab, he got to see the space where youths age 16-18 learn how to test water at a molecular level for lead and other contaminants.
Since the lab opened in October 2020, young people working alongside chemists and lab technicians have tested over 400 water samples taken from Flint homes, Daryl Sparks, outreach coordinator at the lab, said.
“For the most part, a lot of homes come back MDL, Minimum Detection Level, which means no trace of lead found in the water. But there are still a handful of homes that still do have lead in the water,” Sparks said.
When they detect lead, Sparks calls the homeowner and provides them with resources including water filters and contact information for healthcare facilities where they can have their blood drawn and tested for lead.
Antonio Sweeney, a 17-year-old youth ambassador for the National Clean Water Collective, said he started working at the water lab recently.
“The coolest thing is that you’re working with youth and similar mindsets because you don’t really see high school people in these types of positions,” Sweeney said. “This gives you the chance right now to start making impacts in your community.”
Sparks said he oversees six high schoolers. They work 24 hours a week and receive a weekly stipend. Chemists as well as college students teach them how to use the lab equipment.
Makayla Watson, principal chemist at the lab, said she works there to give back to the community.
“It was it was more than just a chemist position; it was being able to work with students, work with the community, help give back, and just be there for the community in general,” Watson said.
Regan said he was “inspired” by the lab.
“What an inspiring group of people. But the star of this show really are the young adults here. The young adults who have turned tragedy into opportunity. To take a look at what the young adults are doing in this facility is nothing short of amazing,” Regan said.
President Joe Biden appointed Regan to his position in March 2021. He is the first Black man to run the EPA.
Flint was one of Regan’s first visits across the country, an act that was received well by Kildee, Neeley, and workers at the water lab.
“Somebody from the Biden Administration just coming on down here and having a talk with us, it makes you feel like you’re at the table, like you have a say in your community,” Sweeney said.