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Monday, July 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Governor a No-Show at First Hearing on Flint

WASHINGTON (CN) - After months of finger pointing in Michigan over Flint's lead-poisoned water, lawmakers took up the albatross Wednesday at the first congressional hearing on the crisis.

Calling it "horrendous," "outrageous," "a train wreck" and "a crime of epic proportions," lawmakers expressed frustration with local, state and federal responses as they tried to sort through the missteps that led to the crisis.

"The public has a right to be outraged. Outrage doesn't even begin to cover it," said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, as the often-heated hearing got underway.

Notably absent from the hearing was Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and several of Michigan's emergency managers - the people the committee would have most liked to question. This emerged as a point of contention for some Democratic committee members, who said the governor in particular bears the brunt of the responsibility for the disaster.

They accused Chaffetz of refusing to require Snyder's attendance because he wanted to lay the blame at the foot of the Environmental Protection Agency for not taking action as soon as it became aware of the crisis.

"Gov. Snyder has admitted to missteps in his own administration," Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a Feb. 2 letter. "The lack of oversight and accountability at the state level requires full investigation, and a partisan hearing that aims to undercut the Environmental Protection Agency will not accurately reveal wrongdoings that occurred in Flint."

A group of 18 lawmakers then invoked their right under House rules to demand that Chaffetz summon Snyder, along with three emergency managers he appointed to oversee Flint since 2011, to testify before Congress in a separate hearing.

Chaffetz did note that Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, who was invited but refused to attend Wednesday's hearing, would be summoned to testify.

"We're calling on U.S. marshals to hunt him down," Chaffetz said, as Flint residents attending the hearing clapped and cheered.

Without Snyder to harangue, the committee pressed state and federal officials - who remain deeply divided over how much blame to take - over their handling of the crisis.

EPA assistant administrator Joel Beauvais called it "highly unusual" that Flint began relying on the untreated Flint River for its water supply, a cost-cutting move directed by the emergency manager Snyder appointed.

Beauvais said the next failure came from Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, the agency responsible for overseeing compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and the EPA's lead and copper rule.

This agency failed to ensure that the new water supply was treated to prevent corrosion, and it misled the EPA in the process, Beauvais said.

Reiterating state responsibility, the city of Flint was required to obtain approval for the water supply switch from the Department of Environmental Quality, which "incorrectly advised the city of Flint that corrosion-control treatment was not necessary, resulting in leeching of lead into the city's drinking water," Beauvais said.

"EPA regional staff urged MDEQ to address the lack of corrosion control, but was met with resistance," Beauvais said, abbreviating the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., placed the blame squarely on former Michigan state emergency manager Edward Kurtz.


"It was Mr. Kurtz who made the decision to use the Flint River as the primary source of drinking water for the city of Flint," Cummings said, referencing a letter submitted by former Flint City Councilman Sheldon Neely, who now serves as a Democratic state representative.

Kurtz went over the heads of city officials, "and went behind closed doors with DEQ officials to make the decision," Cummings said.

The congressman shouted as the exchange heated up. "I want everybody who is responsible for this fiasco to be held accountable," he said. "I'm not protecting anybody because that's not our job. We are the last line of defense and if we don't do it nobody's going to do it."

To Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Cummings asked "why would the governor blame the city council when it was his own appointee who made the decision?"

Creagh said he was unaware of this, but noted that the agency is working to identify the 5,200 lead service lines in Flint.

Current emergency manager Darnell Earley rejected these assertions in a recent editorial for The Detroit News, suggesting that both Flint's mayor and the city council approved the switch in water supply.

When pressed by Rep. Connolly, however, Creagh conceded that his agency bore primary responsibility.

"In retrospect I agree," he said, noting that the agency should have used more "rigor" in overseeing the switch from treated Detroit water to the untreated Flint River.

Creagh indicated that "there's been some suspensions" within the agency.

Members of the panel and lawmakers did not let the EPA skate, however, for the agency's perceived failures in handling the crisis.

LeAnne Walters, a Flint mother who was on the frontlines of the fight to bring attention to the city's water crisis, appeared before the committee alongside Virginia Tech professor Marc Edward, who led research efforts to verify the extent of the crisis.

"My home used to be a place of comfort," Walters said. "That was taken from us. ... We now know the horror of poison running through our taps."

Walters' 4-year old son is among the thousands of Flint children exposed to lead through the poisoned water supply.

The mother said the EPA "punished and silenced the one person who was willing to help us."

That person was EPA regulations manager Miguel Del Toral. Working with Walters, he identified problems with lead in Flint's water was early as February 2015.

In July, Del Toral wrote and circulated an internal EPA memo confirming the gravity of Flint's water crisis, and gave a copy to Walters, who said she publically released it because "people had a right to know."

Del Toral had been under orders from an EPA ethics officer, however, not to speak to anyone from Flint or about Flint, Walters said.

Beauvais denied having any knowledge of this, but Edwards said that EPA punishes people by not allowing them to do their jobs.

The EPA has been criticized for trying to downplay the seriousness of Flint's water crisis, and failure to act with a sense of urgency once the extent of the lead poisoning became known.

Chaffetz circulated an email exchange during the hearing between Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and EPA administrator Susan Hedman, who resigned last month during fallout over the crisis.

Hedman addressed the memo Del Toral prepared in her email.

"The preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency," she wrote. "When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the city and MDEQ and MDEQ will be responsible for following up with the city."

Walters told the committee Del Toral was the only person who did not fail the city of Flint.

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