WASHINGTON—Government failures at the federal, state and local levels that led to poisoning the water flowing from the faucets in Flint, Michigan, will be addressed again today by the House Oversight Committee, which will hear from the state’s governor and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Whereas the city’s former mayor and state officials have acknowledged failings at all levels of government in previous testimony before the committee, EPA officials have denied culpability even though they failed to warn the public and require remedial action as soon as they knew lead was leaching into the city’s water system. Indeed, one of the biggest problems identified during two previous hearings before the committee about the issue is that the regulations intended to protect the public instead have been used as justification for failing to act quickly and responsibly.
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech University professor and expert in lead contamination, bluntly testified to the committee on March 16 that “malfeasance” at the EPA and elsewhere in the federal government has harmed children in Flint and other cities nationwide. The EPA effectively has condoned “cheating” on the agency’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) to the detriment of the public, Edwards said.
Edwards also expressed disappointment that EPA Administrator Gina McCarty wrote a Washington Post op-ed that attempted to absolve her agency of any wrongdoing in its oversight of the Flint water system. He claimed former EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman “actively aided, abetted and emboldened the unethical behavior of civil servants at the State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
“She allowed Flint children to be harmed,” Edwards testified. “Consequently, why should Ms. Hedman not face the same or worse fate as a common landlord who engaged in similar activity?”
Dayne Walling, Flint’s former mayor who lost his bid for re-election last fall amid public anger about the poisonous water, told the committee that evidence of problems became known in early 2015, after a governor-appointed emergency manager initiated use of Flint River water as a substitute to Lake Huron water. The switch itself on April 30, 2014, aimed at saving money should not have been a problem if corrosion controls had been used to treat the river water similarly to the way that the Lake Huron water purchased from the City of Detroit was properly prepared for human consumption.
“I am disappointed now that the EPA did not do more to assist us in Flint and that reassurances about the review process were made when there were warning signs noticed by EPA staff back to the beginning of 2015,” Walling said.
Walling inquired directly with Hedman in June 2015 due to an alarming internal EPA memo drafted and circulated within the federal agency about the lead-contaminated water water expert Miguel Del Torro, who detected the problem when he personally tested the water of a Flint home. Rather than advising Walling that the public should be informed that testing found lead contamination in Flint, Hedman said the agency’s review process was in a preliminary stage, he testified.
“This was another opportunity to correct the problem sooner,” Walling testified. “In retrospect, it is clear information was being parceled out before it reached those of us elected officials and community members in Flint, even after the emergency managers were not in place.”
Darnell Early, a former governor-appointed emergency manage in Flint, said he relied on water experts to handle the switch to Flint River water properly and told the committee that the resulting crisis “tears me up inside.”
“I am very regretful and remorseful,” Earley told the committed during questioning.
It is doubtful that EPA Administrator Gina McCarty will do anything at the hearing today other than blame others, even though her agency is responsible for the oversight of water safety and she can call a press conference or issue a public warning at any time to report factual evidence of contamination.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to admit state failures that precipitated and exacerbated the crisis, as well as current efforts to take corrective action. A real solution will require federal action, too, even if members of Congress need to take the lead to fill the void left by the EPA.