WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A congressional panel on Tuesday criticized the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan officials for failing to do more to sound the alarm about high levels of lead in the city of Flint's drinking water.
“What happened in Flint can never happen again. It is almost unbelievable how many bad decisions were made," said Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
"Government at every level, local, state and federal, made poor decisions."
Flint, a predominantly African-American city of 100,000 about 60 miles (100 km) northwest of Detroit, switched its water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014 to cut costs. The river's corrosive water leached lead from city pipes, creating a public health threat marked by high lead levels in blood samples taken from children.
Lead is a toxic agent that can damage the nervous system.
The crisis has drawn national attention and led to calls for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to resign. It also has led to several lawsuits in state and federal courts, and federal and state investigations.
The water supply was switched back to the Detroit system last October.
Internal EPA memos and emails Chaffetz released about the crisis raised questions about EPA's actions and the state's incompetence.
"Lead lines + no treatment = high lead in water = lead poisoned children," Miguel Del Toral, an EPA official critical of the agency, wrote in a Sept. 22, 2015, email to other agency officials. "At every stage of this process, it seems we spend more time trying to maintain state/local relationships than we do trying to protect the children."
In July 2015, EPA official Jennifer Crooks said in a summary of an agency meeting on Flint that "it doesn't make sense to discuss with the state what happened in the past .... as the state sees the lead levels climbing, I don't see the benefit in rubbing their nose in the fact that we're right and they're wrong."
Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, a water engineer who first raised the issue of Flint's lead contamination, was critical of testimony offered by former EPA regional manager Susan Hedman, who resigned in February as a result of the crisis.
"I can't help but comment on the qualities that seem to be valued in administrators at the EPA: willful blindness, in this case to the pain and suffering of Flint residents; unremorseful for their role in causing this man-made disaster; and completely unrepentant," he told the committee on Tuesday.
He said the EPA has never apologized for what happened in Flint. "I guess being a government agency means you never have to say you're sorry," Edwards said.
(Reporting by David Shepardson, Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Toni Reinhold)