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Flint Hearing: 'What Good is the EPA?'

   

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 3: Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, questions witnesses during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Examining Federal Administration of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint, Michigan on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Chaffetz pledged to continue investigating.  (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Environmental Protection Agency came under sharp criticism Wednesday for failing to inform Flint, Mich., residents for nearly a year that their drinking water was contaminated with lead, and House members vowed to continuing investigating the "manmade crisis."  

"It's important for the EPA to tell people that their water is poisoning their kids," House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, shouted into his microphone at Wednesday's hearing . "Why didn't they do that? What good is the EPA if they can't do that."  

What You Missed: House Hearing on Flint Water Crisis

Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings echoed his outrage, but stressed that state and local officials share much of the blame. "I want everyone who is responsible for this fiasco to be held accountable," the Maryland Democrat bellowed. "I'm not protecting anyone. That's not our job. We are the last line of defense."  

As the House held its hearing, senators acknowledged they have failed to reach agreement on an effort to secure $600 million in federal funding for Flint — a dispute that could derail discussion of a bipartisan energy bill. Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents Flint, testified both at the oversight committee and at the House Budget Committee on Wednesday, where he sought aid for his hometown.  

Leaders from another committee, House Energy and Commerce, sought additional answers Wednesday in letters sent to the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.  

Chaffetz said Wednesday's hearing was only the beginning of the committee's oversight. He said the committee had hoped to hear from the former Flint emergency manager blamed for the wholesale contamination of the city’s water supply, but Darnell Earley dodged a subpoena. "We're calling on the U.S. marshals to hunt him down," he added.  

Chaffetz said the committee would also issue a subpoena for former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Susan Hedman, who resigned amid concerns that she did not move quickly enough to address water quality problems that exposed thousands of children to lead.  

Witnesses testified Wednesday that Hedman received memos about the possible contamination nearly a year ago but spent months wrangling with the state about how to proceed. In the interim, she played down the severity of the problem and forbade the investigator from warning Flint residents, witnesses said.  

Several Democrats said they would like to see Republican Gov. Rick Snyder testify about his failure to act in the face of irrefutable evidence. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., suggested it was a consequence of the insistence on smaller government."Political choices have consequences," said Connolly. "This is the consequence of putting ideology ahead of human beings."  

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who came to Flint to test the water, testified at the hearing that state health officials systematically suppressed information about the water contamination.  

The state official responsible for enforcing federal safe drinking water standards acknowledged mistakes and  apologized to the public during the hearing, making him the second public official to take responsibility since Snyder apologized during his state of the state speech last month.  

"In Flint, the implementation of the federal lead and copper rule was ineffective," said Keith Creagh, interim director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "In hindsight, when the lead levels began to rise, corrosion treatment should have been requested by the DEQ."  

Other witnesses and lawmakers warned that Flint's crisis underscores a nationwide problem, given that the federal regulations governing lead content in water are outdated and inefficient.  

“This is going on not only in Flint, it's going on in Durham, it's going on on D.C., we heard the testimony today," said Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla, said at the House Oversight and Reform hearing. "It needs to stop and we need to ensure the system works."  

In Flint, the situation percolated for months before it came to national attention, spurred in part by emergency declarations from Snyder’s office and the White House and a mention during a Democratic presidential debate last month.  

Earley, an emergency manager appointed by the governor, presided over Flint's decision to switch its water supply in 2014, drawing water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron in an effort to save money. But the state did not require anti-corrosion chemicals to be added to the new water supply, causing iron, rust and toxic levels of lead to leach into residents’ water from the aging supply pipes connected to people’s homes. Residents reportedly complained of rashes and strange odors for months, but officials said the water was safe to drink until elevated levels of lead were found in city children’s blood last year.  

Last week, Michigan Democratic Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow announced they would introduce legislation with Kildee, to clarify the EPA’s authority to notify the public if there is danger from lead in their water system and to allow the agency to release results of any lead monitoring conducted by public water systems.  

And the FBI confirmed Monday that it has launched an investigation in conjunction with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the EPA's Office of Inspector General, and the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division, The Detroit Free Press reported.  

In advance on Wednesday's House hearing, documents were released showing that the EPA knew about the contamination months before residents were told to stop drinking the water.  

As early as February 2015, the EPA internal memos raised concerns about possible lead contamination, and researchers later confirmed that the water was tainted. The federal agency then engaged in a months-long dispute with state officials over who had authority to set the standards for clean water and how to enforce those standards. During that period, the EPA did not publicize its findings or warn residents about the water.  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. Contact Akin at stephanieakin@cqrollcall.com and follow on Twitter at @stephanieakin

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