Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder plans to acknowledge his role in the Flint water crisis but lay much of the blame on “inefficient, ineffective, and unaccountable bureaucrats at the EPA,” when he delivers his much-anticipated testimony before a congressional panel on Thursday.
Given that he will be sharing the witness table with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, things could get awkward.
In an advance copy of McCarthy’s testimony, she accused the Michigan officials of providing “our regional office with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information.”
She added that “their interactions with us were intransigent, misleading and contentious,” which resulted in EPA’s delay in revealing its findings on the lead contamination.
“While EPA did not cause the lead problem, in hindsight, we should not have been so trusting of the state for so long when they provided us with overly simplistic assurances of technical compliance rather than substantive responses to our growing concerns,” she wrote in her prepared remarks.
Snyder’s appearance at the third hearing about Flint’s water contamination crisis by the Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability offers a rare opportunity for House members to publicly question a sitting governor about a crisis on his watch.
Congressional Democrats have promised to call the Republican governor to task for ignoring the crisis while thousands of children were exposed to dangerous levels of lead and bacteria. Both Democratic presidential candidates have called on Snyder to resign.
In Thursday’s testimony, Snyder will repeat his apology to the people of Flint and lay out a timeline of the events that contributed to the contamination of tap water and the failure of state and federal officials to inform residents about it.
Much of his testimony could play 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 wrote in his prepared remarks.
“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.”
Republicans plan to continuing hammering 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,” Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, wrote in his prepared opening statement for Thursday’s hearing.
In Snyder’s testimony, he plans detail the response from government officials at all levels who failed to inform the public for months. The EPA has said it informed state officials of the contamination but could not force the state to take action.
And he will will praise the Flint residents and local activists whose persistence brought the problem to the nation’s attention: University of Virginia scientist Marc Edwards, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and Flint resident LeeAnne Walters.
Snyder will describe 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 auditor and the inspector general.
That investigation has turned up, “systemic failures,” in the state Department of Environmental Quality, the statement reads.
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 that he was misled by state and federal officials who assured him the water was safe.
Chaffetz plans to address Early’s testimony in his remarks Thursday.
“Many blame him for what’s unfolded in Flint, and in turn, that blame is assigned to the governor,” according to the remarks. “To better understand what went wrong we need to know who knew what and when they knew it.”
At Tuesday’s 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 public notification 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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