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Congress explores how government failures created Flint water crisis

February 10, 2016

Courtesy of MIRS News Service

Flint resident Lee-Ann WALTERS’ voice shook only a little as she spoke to a congressional committee room about the type of water that’s flowed through her faucets for months. 

Walters, who has been credited as a “citizen hero” for her efforts to alert federal and state regulators about Flint’s contaminated water supply, described her home to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as “ground-zero” of the Flint water crisis. 

Walters wasn’t alone as she contributed to the nearly four-hour hearing Wednesday morning as dozens of Flint and Detroit residents — who arrived hours earlier by bus — helped pack the committee to capacity. And they hung around for the entire four-hour hearing. 

“Thousands of people were knowingly poisoned for months,” said Flint resident Bishop Bernadel JEFFERSON. “We are making the trip to D.C. to show members of Congress that we’re serious about making sure that the people responsible for this manmade disaster are held accountable.” 

Today’s testimony kicked off a congressional investigation into the missteps that created a public health crisis in Flint. The committee proceedings were divided into two parts. 

The first panel heard the testimony from U.S. Rep. Dan KILDEE (D-Flint). The second panel included the testimony of interim Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Director Keith CREAGH, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator Joel BEAUVAIS, Virginia Tech University environmental scientist Marc EDWARDS and Walters. 

Neither EPA Region 5 Director Susan HEDMAN nor Flint emergency financial manager Darnell EARLEY appeared before the Committee. Earley had been subpoenaed to appear before Wednesday’s hearing, but declined to attend. 

Committee Chair Jason CHAFFETZ (R-UT) pledged to utilize his authority to issue U.S. Marshals to compel the appearance of Earley before the committee at a later date. Chaffetz also noted that Hedman was subpoenaed Wednesday by the committee for a hearing later this month. 

The members of the committee were unified in their outrage at the failures across all levels of government. Many recognized the Flint water crisis as a man-made disaster that could have happened anywhere in the nation. U.S. Rep. Tim WALBERG (R-Tipton), a member of the committee, said the crisis in Flint was a “human disaster brought on by the failures of humans as well as brought on by failures of government at all levels.” 

Many of the committee participants took issue with Michigan’s emergency financial manager law. Committee Democrats issued a letter calling for the appearance of Gov. Rick [SNYDER] and the three state-appointed emergency managers who oversaw the Flint water crisis. Chaffetz previously declined to call Snyder to appear before the committee. 

Kildee stated that attempts by the state to shift blame onto the city of Flint were part of a “PR campaign” to distract from state’s responsibility. Kildee acknowledged that the EPA assumes some responsibility for the government’s slow response, but placed blame squarely on the failure of the DEQ to oversee the city’s corrosive treatment plan and the city’s state-appointed emergency managers. 

“But the truth of the matter is, the State of Michigan continues to assert that it has primacy when it comes to the enforcement of the law,” said Kildee. “They can’t have it both ways. They can’t say to the EPA ‘stay out of our business,’ but then when they fail in their business try to blame the EPA. It’s like a bank robber blaming the police for not catching them before they went into the bank.”   

U.S. Rep Justin AMASH (R-Cascade Twp.) agreed with his Democratic colleagues that “independent, nonpartisan investigation” is needed to fully understand why state and federal response was so slow. 

Committee proceedings indicated points of resistance among the various levels of government that will be more fully-fleshed as the committee continues its investigation. Committee members questioned Creagh about MDEQ’s failure to oversee implementation of corrosion control plans compliant with the federal Lead and Copper Rule and its failure to coordinate with the EPA. 

U.S. Rep. Brenda LAWRENCE (D-Southfield) asked Creagh to explain why MDEQ failed to respond to the EPA’s Feb. 26, 2015, memo advising the state of high lead levels. 

“It’s the question of the day,” Creagh replied. “It’s what many of the auditors and reviews will have. Who made what decisions and when?” 

Beauvais, the EPA’s Deputy Director of Water, faced questions about the agency’s slow response to the emerging crisis. 

Hedman has been accused of downplaying the findings of EPA Region 5 researcher Miguel DEL TORAL, who personally tested the water in Walters’ home and drafted an internal memo alerting the agency of his results. Del Toral was initially called to testify in Wednesday’s hearing, but was excused due to his involvement in the EPA’s ongoing recovery efforts in Flint. The EPA has agreed to release all of Del Toral’s emails by the end of the week. 

The committee has previously investigated this issue in a July hearing regarding a culture of “mismanagement and retaliation” within the EPA’s Region 5 administration. Some of the criticisms of EPA policies Edwards raised during Wednesday’s hearing date back more than a decade to the agency’s mismanagement of lead levels in Washington, D.C. 

Turning to the EPA and MDEQ’s joint efforts to fix the damage caused by corrosion, the committee discussed the future of Flint’s water delivery system. Amash criticized the state for spending more funds on its Pure Michigan ad campaign than it has committed this year to Flint. 

Creigh testified that MDEQ has taken steps to identify homes with lead piping and conduct special water testing at those sites. The state found 56,000 parcels that are at risk, however uncertainty remains as to where an estimated 5,200 lead service lines exist lie in the city of Flint. 

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