WASHINGTON—Government failures at the federal, state and local levels that led to toxic water flowing from the faucets in Flint, Michigan, spurred the House Oversight Committee to hold two hearings this week in which the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its former Midwest region administrator claimed agency officials did nothing wrong by waiting months to confirm that a public health hazard existed.
In contrast, Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder testified March 17 that state employees failed to ensure a cost-saving move by an emergency manager he appointed to help the fiscally strapped city was implemented properly when Flint River water began to be used rather than Lake Huron water purchased from the City of Detroit. But EPA officials denied any culpability even though they failed to require remedial action upon learning lead was leaching into the city’s water system.
Indeed, one of the biggest problems identified during hearings before the committee about the Flint water crisis is that the regulations intended to protect the public instead have been used as justification for failing to act quickly and responsibly to protect public health.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified at the same hearing that that state approved the switch and did not require corrosion control treatment to prevent lead from pipes, fittings and fixtures leaching into the drinking water. The result is Flint residents were exposed to dangerously high levels of lead, she said.
McCarthy added that the EPA has oversight authority but that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act gives states the primary responsibility to enforce drinking water rules for the nation’s approximately 152,000 water systems. She accused state officials of providing the EPA's regional office with "confusing, incomplete and incorrect information."
However, EPA water expert Miguel Del Toral tried to raise an alarm in February 2015, but he was "silenced" by his superiors, Gov. Snyder testified.
Not until October 1, 2015, did Gov. Snyder learn state water experts who claimed the water was safe when the city began using the Flint River in April 2014 were wrong and that the water had been contaminated by dangerous levels of lead.
"On that day, I took immediate action," Gov. Snyder testified.
"First, we quickly reconnected to the Detroit water supply to begin sealing the damaged pipes," Gov. Snyder testified. "Second, I ordered the immediate distribution of water filters and extensive blood level testing in schools and homes to identify those at the highest risk so they received healthcare, nutrition and additional support. Third, we deployed $67 million to address both short-term needs and long-term solutions."
The priority is on both short-term health and long-term safety, including diagnostic testing, nurse visits and in-home environmental assessments to treat any children with high lead levels, Gov. Snyder said.
The governor now is seeking an additional $165 million from state legislators to deliver permanent, long-term solutions and urged Congress to pass the bipartisan bill for aiding Flint swiftly to further protect the health and safety of Flint families.
The funding would help to identify every pipe that must be replaced and to provide long-term medical support, while working closely with local leaders, who include Flint’s Mayor Karen Weaver, to deliver the needed assistance, Gov. Snyder said.
"I am not going to point fingers or shift blame; there is plenty of that to share, and neither will help the people of Flint," said Gov. Snyder, who praised the "heroism" of Virginia Tech University Professor Marc Edwards, Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha and Flint resident LeeAnne Walters for their roles in sounding the alarm about the government failures that jeopardized the health of people in the community.
Edwards, an expert in lead contamination, testified before the committee on March 15 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 to the detriment of the public, Edwards said.
Edwards also expressed disappointment that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy 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 on March 15 that evidence of problems became known in early 2015, after an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Snyder initiated use of Flint River water as a substitute to Lake Huron water. The switch itself could have been safe 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 by Del Toral, 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 Earley, Flint's former emergency manager, testified on March 15 that he relied on 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 committee during questioning.
Even though the EPA leadership could have called a press conference or issued a public warning about the tainted water in Flint when testing by its own expert showed a problem, McCarthy and Hedman said the agency's only shortcomings were not addressing the situation more aggressively and trusting state employees who claimed the Flint water was safe and properly treated.
Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said that the EPA has failed to significantly update the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Lead and Copper rule since 1991, despite a law requiring the agency to review and revise the rule at least every six years. The EPA’s latest estimate for completing a final rule is 2018, he added.
The hearings could lead to Congressional action to provide federal aid to Flint to supplement the efforts the state already has begun to provide bottled water and other emergency measures aimed at mitigating the public health fallout.