Michigan’s governor and the nation's top environmental official pointed fingers at the other as they testified Thursday on the water crisis in Flint, but they both agreed on one thing: The city’s residents were exposed to lead in their drinking water for months because of failures of the government officials charged with protecting them.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said state officials were “intransigent, misleading and contentious,” while Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said EPA officials were “inefficient, ineffective, and unaccountable bureaucrats” who “allowed this disaster to continue unnecessarily.”
Both officials were urged to resign during the hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., told Snyder, a Republican, he should step down because “plausible deniability only works if it is plausible.” And Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah., told Obama appointee McCarthy to "do the courageous thing” and resign over EPA's slow response.
The hearing, the committee's third on the Flint crisis drew a large audience. A line wrapping along the length of a hallway in the Rayburn House Office Building resulted in a full hearing room and two full overflow rooms. Many in the crowd were wearing Flint Lives Matter shirts and hats.
Dozens of residents from Flint traveled by plane and bus to be there, some of them saying they spent 14 hours driving through the night only to be told they had to wait in the hallway because there was no room for them to sit.
The Rev. Al Sharpton brought a group of protesters in canary yellow T-shirts. Flint residents wore badges declaring them victims. In the formal hearing room, attendees were warned not to make noise during the proceedings. But in the overflow rooms upstairs, the crowd cheered and shouted so loudly that it drowned out the sound from the television screens.
“Murderers,” they cried as Snyder and McCarthy testified. “Our babies!”
Snyder repeated his apology to the people of Flint and described his version of the events that contributed to the contamination of tap water and the failure of state and federal officials to inform residents about it for months.
Much of his testimony played into a congressional GOP narrative that faults the EPA.
"The fact is, bureaucrats created a culture that valued technical compliance over common sense – and the result was that lead was leaching into residents’ water," Snyder said.
"Inefficient, ineffective, and unaccountable bureaucrats at the EPA allowed this disaster to continue unnecessarily. I am glad to be sitting next to the administrator from the EPA, because all of us must acknowledge our responsibility and be held accountable."
McCarthy said state officials resisted EPA's efforts to help.
"Their interactions with us were intransigent, misleading and contentious," she said. "As a result, EPA staff were unable to understand the potential scope of the lead problem until a year after the switch and had insufficient information to indicate a systemic lead problem until mid-summer of 2015."
Republicans pressed the EPA on why it knew about the contamination for months but did not ensure that the water was properly treated or that the public was notified.
“If the EPA doesn’t know when to step in and ensure a community has safe drinking water, I’m not sure why it exists at all," Chaffetz said in a statement before the hearing.
McCarthy, bolstered by the committee's Democrats, countered that the crisis was triggered entirely by decisions made by state officials.
"The crisis we’re seeing was the result of a state-appointed emergency manager deciding that the city would stop purchasing treated drinking water and instead switch to an untreated source to save money," she said.
"The state of Michigan approved that decision, and did so without requiring corrosion control treatment. Without corrosion control, lead from pipes, fittings and fixtures can leach into the drinking water. These decisions resulted in Flint residents being exposed to dangerously high levels of lead."
But she also said that while the EPA informed state officials of the need for corrosion control, it did not do enough to bring the public's attention to the matter.
"Although EPA regional staff repeatedly urged the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, or MDEQ, to address the lack of corrosion control," McCarthy said, "we missed the opportunity late last summer to quickly get EPA’s concerns on the public’s radar screen."
State of Emergency Snyder described his office's actions since President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in January, including releasing thousands of pages of internal emails and launching an investigation of the department of Health and Human Services by the state's auditor and inspector general.
That investigation has turned up "systemic failures" in the state Department of Environmental Quality, he said.
Snyder has repeatedly apologized to the people of Flint and promised to fix the water crisis, starting in his January State of the State address. But his words and actions have done little the appease his detractors.
Congressional Democrats have targeted him as chiefly responsible for the situation. He has been named in multiple civil lawsuits filed by Flint families.
Local activists are circulating two petitions to recall him in a November referendum. And he faces criticism at home for the revelation this week that he authorized $1.2 million in taxpayer money for his legal defense.
A venture capitalist, Snyder swept into office in 2010, calling himself "one tough nerd," and promising to reinvent the state through business-like leadership.
He strengthened the state's law that allows the governor to appoint emergency financial managers to take over day-to-day operations of municipalities deemed in fiscal distress, and he relied on the law more than any of his predecessors.
Darnell Earley, a former emergency financial manager in Flint, was among the state and federal officials who have been brought to Congress to explain why the city waited months to address the contamination or inform residents. He testified Tuesday before the committee that he was misled by state and federal officials who assured him the water was safe.
“Many blame him for what’s unfolded in Flint, and in turn, that blame is assigned to the governor," according to Snyder's statement. "To better understand what went wrong we need to know who knew what and when they knew it."
At the Tuesday hearing, Chaffetz read memos between the EPA and the Michigan DEQ 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.
The EPA said it was legally limited in revealing the information due to a law requiring interaction only with the state. The House passed legislation last month to address that concern by requiring EPA to notify the public within 15 days of discovering elevated lead-levels. The bill awaits approval in the Senate.
McCarthy visited Flint on Feb. 2, vowing that the agency would remain in the community to help until the water system could begin safely operating again.
The EPA indicated it would use the spotlight on Flint to ensure a similar situation does not occur elsewhere. McCarthy sent a letter last month to every state government, “urging them to work with the EPA on infrastructure investments, technology, oversight and risk assessment.” The EPA also is looking at how to strengthen its Lead and Copper rule.
Contact Dillon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @jeremydillonCQ
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