Policy

Flint Officials: Experts Failed Us

Former Mayor and Emergency Manager Blame State

A volunteer walks by cases of bottled water at the St. Mark Baptist Church in Flint, Mich., that serves as a water distribution area, February 23, 2016. The water supply was not properly treated after being switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River and now contains lead and iron. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Flint's former mayor and administrator testified Tuesday that state officials never told them that the water running through their pipes was contaminated with lead, poisoning tens of thousands of residents.  

“We relied on the experts to verify that the water would not pose any threat to the community,” Darnell Earley, the city’s former emergency financial administrator, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform at its second congressional hearing on the issue. “The experts failed all of us.”  

Earley acknowledged that he knew about bacteria contamination and that the water was rusting newly manufactured parts at a local factory, but experts did not tell him that the city should switch to another water source.  

Earley and former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling  have both left their posts since the revelation that the city’s drinking water was contaminated for months with undisclosed lead and bacteria.  

In fact, the committee hearing opened with a clip from a local television station showing Walling drinking the water in July 2015.  

"Now it tastes very similar to any other tap water,” Walling said in the clip, as he sipped from a coffee mug.  “It’s got a little bit of a chlorine taste to it.”  

Walling lost his bid for re-election last fall, in part because of anger over water quality.  

The Flint officials were joined by former Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Susan Hedman, who resigned in the wake of the scandal. She also blamed state officials, saying they were too slow to act on information the federal agency shared.  

Hedman’s voice cracked and she appeared to be choking back tears when she said, “I have not stopped worrying about the people of Flint.”  

Ranking Committee Member Elijah Cummings was not sympathetic. “I’m glad you resigned,” he said to Hedman.  

Then he turned his attention to Earley.  

“Mr. Earley, I’ve got to tell you I almost vomited when I heard you say something a moment ago. You said that even after you found out that newly manufactured parts were starting to rust out by using the Flint water that you didn’t see that as a problem. Wait a minute now, I’m confused. If they’re going to rust out newly manufactured parts, you mean that doesn’t send you a warning that maybe human beings could be harmed? Come on now.”  

Earley said he relied on the state and EPA experts to make that assessment.  

“A 5-year-old could figure that out,” Cummings responded.  

All three witnesses took responsibility for a limited role in the city's water crisis, but said that they were mislead by scientific experts and stymied by others who shared decision-making power in the city, which was under the control of an emergency manager during most of the crisis.  

A state law in Michigan allows the governor to appoint an emergency manager to handle day-to-day operations of cities deemed to be in fiscal crises.  

Both Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz and Cummings said in opening statements that they were disappointed by the lack of accountability at all levels.  

"What's sickening about this, is that it was totally avoidable," Chaffetz, R-Utah, said in his opening statements. He focused on the EPA's role in the situation, reading from memos between the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that showed officials in both departments were aware of the problem as early as the summer of 2015 but did not take action until January 2016.  

Cummings, D-Md., acknowledged that the EPA played a role but said the brunt of the responsibility lies with the state's Governor, Rick Snyder, a Republican. Snyder is scheduled to testify before the committee on Thursday.  

"I’m not trying to protect anybody except the people of Flint," Cummings said. "But ... states have the primary responsibility to enforce the safe drinking water act."  

Cummings said that he and Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich, have been interviewing several other officials who led Flint at the time of the crisis, including two of the city's other emergency managers.  

President Barack Obama declared a national state of emergency in Flint in January, allowing $5 million in federal aid to flow there. Much of the money has been devoted to dispensing water filters and bottled water to residents who must still use it to bathe, cook and do their dishes.  

Congress, meanwhile, remains split over who should bear the brunt of the responsibility and what role the federal government should play in the recovery. An aid package that would help Flint replace its corroded pipes is stalled in the Senate.  

Republicans have focused on the EPA, which is responsible for enforcing federal safe drinking water standards.  

Democrats have pointed to Snyder, who ignored reports that the water was contaminated. He has since apologized to Flint residents and promised to fix the problem.  

Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager when it switched its drinking water supply in 2014. The EPA identified problems with lead contamination nearly a year ago, but spent months arguing with state officials before informing the public.  

Walling said the emergency manager system stripped him and other elected officials of their duties, and their recommendations throughout the crisis were ignored.  

"The recommendations I made, along with the Flint City Council and many other elected officials, community and faith leaders and activists were discounted by the emergency managers and Governor Snyder going back more than a year," he said.  

"The state’s focus on balancing the city’s books and choosing low cost over human consequences created more expensive public problems, as state and federal regulators did not fully address the issues along the way."  

Hedman said her EPA regional office attempted to alert state officials as soon as she learned of the contamination, in the summer of 2015. But state officials waited for months to respond, and the EPA was hampered by a federal law that gave the agency little power to enforce its safe drinking water regulations, she said.  

"The bad news is that this problem should never have happened in the first place, and I need to remind you: the EPA had nothing at all to do with that."  

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who tested Flint's water, said he was disturbed by Hedman’s testimony, which he said showed, “willful blindness” and a lack of remorse.  

“The EPA had everything to do with creating Flint,” Edwards told the committee. “I guess being an EPA administrator means never having to say you are sorry. She allowed Flint's children to be harmed.”  

Dozens of Flint residents attended the hearing, some with their children in tow. They said they were still unable to use the water from their taps and were frustrated with what they saw as a lack of accountability from the officials responsible.  

"They all knew, all of them," said Laura MacIntyre, 48, who brought her 10-year-old twins to the hearing. "The sooner they take responsibility for the mess they created, the sooner we can get something done. This pass-the-buck game is just further hurting the citizens of Flint."  

The city is still struggling to address basic needs, including testing children for lead poisoning and ensuring that drinking water is safe.  

At the same time, it must also make a plan for the long-term repercussions of the water contamination, including providing health care for the children exposed to the contaminated water, helping local businesses survive the crisis and eventually rebuilding a city that has been in turmoil for decades.  

The federal government approved an expansion of Medicaid coverage to pregnant women and children in Flint. The Medicaid expansion would provide coverage for lead-blood level monitoring, behavioral health services and nutritional support, among other services. It has also put more money toward Head Start programs, which can provide educational and health support for children exposed to lead.

Related:

Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.