By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers on Thursday called for the resignations of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, on the grounds that they failed to act fast enough to intervene with the city of Flint's contaminated drinking water.
Snyder and McCarthy sat side by side before the House Oversight Committee as lawmakers from both parties grilled them on their response to the crisis, which has turned into a full-blown health emergency. It also has led to several lawsuits in state and federal courts, and federal and state investigations.
Under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, Flint, a working class mostly African-American city of 100,000 northwest of Detroit, switched water supplies to the Flint River from Detroit's water system in 2014, to save money.
The corrosive river water leached lead from the city's water pipes. Lead is toxic and can damage the nervous system. Blood samples taken from children in Flint contained high levels of lead.
The city switched back to the Detroit system last October.
Over 200 residents from Flint traveled by bus to Washington to attend Thursday's hearing, including 10-year-old Jaylon Terry, who fidgeted in his chair in the committee room.
"I've been getting constant calls every day from his teachers," said his mother, Lewenna Terry, who said the lead in his system has affected Jaylon's attention span and grades. "The teachers have noticed it's not just my son but other kids. The whole city has been poisoned."
On Thursday, Republicans on the committee pinned much of the blame on the EPA, which many party members would like to eliminate because they feel the agency has too much power. Democrats pointed fingers at Snyder and Michigan officials, suggesting that a focus on cutting costs came at the expense of public health.
"You don’t get it, You still don’t get it. You just don’t get it," Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, told McCarthy, criticizing her for failing to accept blame for the crisis. Chaffetz is the committee's chair.
Several Republicans called on McCarthy to resign.
The committee's top Democrat, Maryland's Elijah Cummings, said Snyder's administration was to blame for its mishandling of the crisis and called on the governor to resign.
"There is no doubt in my mind that if a corporate CEO did what Governor Snyder’s administration has done, he would be hauled up on criminal charges," he said in his opening remarks. "The board of directors would throw him out. And the shareholders would revolt."
Snyder again apologized for the state’s poor response to the crisis, but said the blame can be shared at all levels of government.
"Let me be blunt," he said in his testimony. "We all failed the families of Flint."
McCarthy also said the EPA was part of a wider system failure in response to the crisis, but said the agency could have caught the problem faster if the state had shared information and cooperated more. She accused the state's Department of Environmental Quality of "slow walking" its response, which prevented the agency from being able to "come to the rescue."
"We were strong-armed. We were misled. We were kept at arm's length," she said, referring to state officials.
However, Snyder said federal bureaucrats could have responded sooner if they had used common sense.
Representative Matt Cartwright, a Pennsylvania Democrat, accused Snyder of apologizing too late and called on him to resign.
“Plausible deniability only works when it's plausible and I'm not buying that you didn't know about any of this until October 2015," he said. "You were not in a medically induced coma for a year and I've had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Matthew Lewis)