Flint Hearing Sizzles as Michigan|Governor Gets in the Hot Seat

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Finally testifying Thursday about the leaded-water crisis in Flint, Mich., that has him facing calls to resign, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder blamed the failure to protect residents on emergency managers he appointed.
     The governor’s strongest admission of responsibility since the crisis unfolded came when Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey Democrat, asked if his emergency managers fell down on the job.
     “In this particular case, with respect to the water issue, that would be a fair conclusion,” Snyder told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
     Emergency managers are made possible in Michigan by a law called P.A. 436 that Snyder signed in 2012, just a year after taking office, after the repeal of the statute’s predecessor.
     Empowering Snyder to suspend all elected officials in financially distressed municipalities, and transfer their power to an appointee of his choosing, the law is the subject of a federal lawsuit that casts it as racially discriminatory.
     Darnell Earley, the emergency manager whom Snyder tapped for the job in Flint, switched the city’s water supply from Detroit’s Lake Huron to the corrosive Flint River in April 2014 as a cost-cutting measure.
     “People who put dollars over the fundamental safety of the people do not belong in government,” Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., said in a particularly biting portion of the interrogation.
     “You need to resign, Governor Snyder,” Cartwright thundered.
     Cartwright read the committee text from a letter former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling sent Snyder about the city’s troubles in January 2015, one full year before Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint.
     “There is nothing more important in Flint right now than fixing the water problems,” the letter, still memorialized on Walling’s website, states.
     Walling begged Snyder to come to Flint, Cartwright said, but the governor waited more than seven months after receiving that letter to make the trip.
     Snyder enraged the lawmaker by saying he could not be sure whether he traveled to Flint during that time period without checking his schedule.
     “Plausible deniability only works when it’s plausible,” Cartwright said. “And I’m not buying that you didn’t know about any of this until October 2015.”
     “You were not in a medically induced coma for a year,” Cartwright added, as tension-breaking laughter filled the chamber. “And I’ve had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies.”
     Snyder made one such apology when the hearing turned to Flint’s children, who face ongoing impaired development from lead exposure.
     “I kick myself every single day about what I could’ve done more,” Snyder said.
     Snyder’s appearance comes two days after Susan Hedman, the ousted EPA administrator who oversaw a territory that includes Michigan, faced savage questioning by the same committee.
     But Cartwright told Snyder that this woman “bears not one-tenth of the responsibility of the state of Michigan and your administration.”
     Though committee members had asked Snyder to appear at Tuesday’s hearing and an earlier one it held on Flint, the governor ducked their invitations until he received a subpoena.
     Angry lawmakers were relentless but mostly unsuccessful today in trying to make Snyder and the hearing’s other witness, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, accept responsibility for the crisis that has subjected thousands to possible lead poisoning and other illnesses like Legionnaires’ disease.
     “Inefficient, ineffective, and unaccountable bureaucrats at the EPA allowed this disaster to continue unnecessarily,” Snyder said.
     He also blamed the EPA’s “dumb and dangerous” lead and copper rule, which the EPA oversees, but which states are responsible for implementing.
     “The truth is, there are many communities with potentially dangerous lead problems,” Snyder said, calling on the EPA to change the rule so that other U.S. cities do not face a similar “tragedy.”
     McCarthy deflected blame but conceded that regulators must strengthen the lead and copper rule.
     Shielding her agency from criticism over its response to Flint, McCarthy said “it was not EPA at the helm when this happened.”
     Conceding only that the agency should have pushed harder, McCarthy resolutely denied that the EPA caused the crisis.
     “Looking back on Flint, from Day 1, the state provided our regional office with confusing, incomplete and absolutely incorrect information,” McCarthy said. “Their interactions with us were intransigent, misleading and contentious.”
     After Snyder’s emergency manager swapped Flint’s water system in April 2014, the EPA did not realize the systemic nature of the problem until tests confirmed widespread lead contamination in mid-summer 2015, she said.
     The agency was not aware until April that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had lied about performing corrosion control that might have stopped the old pipes from leeching lead into the Flint’s water system, McCarthy added.
     “If there was any change I could’ve made, any switch I could’ve turned on, I would’ve pulled that switch,” McCarthy said when pressed as to whether the agency did anything wrong. “Were we late in getting it done? Yes. Were there consequences to that? Absolutely.”
     One by one, lawmakers scolded the witnesses.
     “When we’re dead and gone, these children will suffer for what we failed to do,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings said, a Maryland Democrat.
     Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, had two staffers hold up what he said were 8,000 pages of orders from Snyder-appointed emergency managers, none of which addressed Flint’s water crisis, he said.
     Republicans meanwhile used McCarthy’s testimony to revive their complaints about federal overreach.
     “I hear calls for resignation,” Rep. John Mica, a Republican from Florida, told McCarthy. “I think you should be at the top of the list.”
     Mica noted that EPA lead expert Miguel Del Toral penned an alarming report in June after tests revealed high lead content in several Flint homes.
     “You can read Del Toral’s report,” said Mica, chiding the EPA for not issuing an emergency order on the crisis until January. “It’s incredibly accurate.”
     McCarthy again deflected, insisting that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality “slow-walked” their responsibilities.
     “We were strong-armed,” she said. “We were misled.”
     Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, was among several lawmakers who accused the agency of retaliating against Del Toral for allegedly leaking the report.
     McCarthy vehemently denied Chaffetz’s charge that the agency forced Del Toral to take ethics training.
     In the midst of Thursday’s hearing, Cummings sent out an email with what he purported were emails from Del Toral that contradicted the accusations.
     “I was never required by anyone to take ethics training because of Flint or for any other reason other than the mandatory ethics training required to be taken annually by all EPA employees,” one of Del Toral’s alleged emails said.
     To counter Cummings’ claim, the committee itself sent out an email an hour and 40 minutes later, containing another alleged email from Del Toral penned in July 2015.
     “It almost sounds like I’m to be stuck in a corner holding up a potted plant because of Flint,” Del Toral allegedly wrote. “One mis-step in 27+ years here and people lose their minds.”
     Cummings said in an interview after the hearing that he was aware of the email but did not want to comment on it now.
     Melissa Mayes, a Flint resident at the hearing, said the partisan divide was an unwelcome feature of the committee’s investigation.
     “The EPA failed us because they didn’t jump in and push harder, they didn’t demand the facts. And that’s unfortunate, it is. But they didn’t make the choices that caused us to be poisoned,” Mayes said in an interview.
     Rep. Lacy Clay, a Democrat from Missouri, raised that issue during the hearing.
     “You know, I have to hand it to my Republican colleagues,” Clay said. “They are actually making their arguments with a straight face.”
     “The Republicans have been absolutely slamming the EPA for overreaching,” Clay said, but are now criticizing the agency for being more aggressive when the Michigan state government failed to do its job.
     Clay noted that Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has called for eliminating the EPA, and handing that power over to the states, a desired policy trend among Republicans.
     “House Republicans, including those in this committee, have voted at every turn to gut the EPA’s authority to enforce the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the list goes on,” Clay said.
     McCarthy used the opportunity to reiterate her belief that the state of Michigan bears ultimate responsibility for the crisis.
     After the hearing, Cummings told reporters that he decided during the hearing to call for Snyder’s resignation.
     “I think that it is time for him to go,” Cummings said. “Basically he seemed to have an utter disregard for the people who he’s sworn to safeguard.”
     Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., told reporters that he was not impressed with Snyder’s admissions of responsibility.
     “I’ve heard Governor Snyder say he took responsibility, but do everything but take responsibility,” said Kildee, who recently introduced the Families of Flint Act.
     Fully addressing the crisis will cost $1.5 billion, but Snyder has failed to propose a concrete plan, or set aside the funds to do it, Kildee said.
     “So far, all he’s done is send Flint a get-well card,” Kildee added, “and it’s not acceptable.”

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