The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, was in Seattle this week. She delivered the keynote address at a Climate Leadership Conference Wednesday night.
But beforehand, she also spoke to students and faculty at the University of Washington’s schools of public health and public policy. She talked about her concerns in the wake of the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead has been poisoning municipal water supplies.
She said at its heart, more than anything, this crisis is about money.
“And what we know about Flint is that their problem isn’t just lead or lead lines or the corrosivity of the water. It’s the fact that the water system hasn’t been invested in in decades,” McCarthy said.
She said the EPA is working to help Flint on the local, state and federal levels. But she added that it’s not a unique problem. She says there are at least 10 million water lines in the United States that are in similar need of attention. And she estimates at least $600 billion worth of investments are needed to address all the issues in keeping public water supplies healthy in the U.S.
Right now, she says the federal government supports this effort to the tune of only about $2 billion. So there's a lot of hard work that needs to be done and big demands for talent at her agency.
But with all the comments in the news lately about things like the size of candidates hands, she said quite frankly, she’s worried.
“Where are these young people going to gravitate towards? Are they looking at a presidential contest and the rhetoric there [and] saying ‘I want nothing to do with public service right now?'"
She added that the EPA's position in the line of fire lately hasn't helped. Staffers are facing big morale issues.
"EPA's been in, sort of, the bull's eye here," she said. "Basically all of our moves have been questioned, our science has been questioned. And it's very difficult for people in the agency to keep their spirits up, even though we've made tremendous progress."
That’s why she’s putting a lot of effort into getting out into communities wherever she can to remind them that public health is not just about doctors and nurses.
“It’s not the after effects of the exposure. It’s reducing the exposure itself. And why that is a noble thing to do," McCarthy said.
After her speech at the UW, McCarthy answered questions about how to regulate toxic chemicals as well as the municipal water crisis in Flint, Michigan. She said there’s still work to be done on air pollution and climate change, but even more of a concern is cleaning up public water supplies all over the U.S.
You can hear KPLU environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp's exclusive interview in its entirety by clicking the 'play' icon at the top of this post.