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Why It's So Disturbingly Common for Water Regulation to Fail

What happened in Flint reflects an environmental bureaucracy too easily tripped up by local politics.
Joel Beauvais, acting deputy assistant administrator, Office of Water, EPA; Keith Creagh, director, Department of Environmental Quality, State of Michigan; Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech professor, Environmental and Water Resources Engineering: and Flint resident LeeAnne Walters, are sworn in on Capitol Hill.
Joel Beauvais, acting deputy assistant administrator, Office of Water, EPA; Keith Creagh, director, Department of Environmental Quality, State of Michigan; Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech professor, Environmental and Water Resources Engineering: and Flint resident LeeAnne Walters, are sworn in on Capitol Hill.AP Photo/Molly Rile

The Texas border towns of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo had always lacked safe drinking water supplies, back to their founding as colonias by unscrupulous developers in the 1980s. When the Rio Bravo Water Treatment Plant opened in 2006, the citizens, predominantly poor and Latino, hoped their tainted-tap troubles would be washed away.

But the $12 million, state-of-the-art plant didn’t work. The water smelled and came out in peculiar colors. Almost immediately residents complained about stomach problems and skin rashes to Webb County officials, and eventually to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which issued some violations. But it wasn’t until 2013 that the TCEQ, alongside the Texas Rangers, launched investigations that found the county had been falsifying water quality records all along. In 2015, one county employee pled guilty to criminal charges, while TCEQ was probed for not having done more about the dysfunctional plant.