WASHINGTON (CN) – An Environmental Protection Agency official ousted in the wake of Flint, Mich.’s leaded-water crisis urged Congress on Tuesday not to blame the federal agency.
“I don’t think anyone at EPA did anything wrong, but I do believe we could have done more,” said Susan Hedman, a onetime appointee of President Barack Obama.
In a crisis where there is plenty of blame to go around, Hedman served as administrator of EPA Region 5, a territory that includes Michigan, two years ago when Flint switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the corrosive Flint River.
Having tendered her resignation this past January, Hedman faced two hours of heated questioning this morning from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Proceedings got off to a rocky start when the committee chairman treated Hedman like a tardy student after she walked into the hearing several minutes late.
“Ms. Hedman is now here, we can go ahead and start,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said with noticeable annoyance.
Detailing the multiple failures that let Flint’s poisoned-water crisis continue unchecked for 17 months, Chaffetz entered into the record an email suggesting that the EPA intentionally ignored Flint’s problems.
“We’ve included information on Flint’s financial practices as we think Susan needs to be aware,” wrote Debbie Baltazar, chief of the State and Tribal Programs Branch of the EPA’s Water Division.
“Perhaps she already knows this, but I’m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for,” the letter continues, addressed to EPA Region Five employees Steve Marquardt and Tim Henry. “At least without a better understanding of where all the money went.”
Loud groans rose from the packed hearing room as Chaffetz read the selection, with the email displayed on two large televisions in the room
“Oh no,” someone in the audience said.
Meanwhile a group of Flint residents who traveled to Tuesday’s hearing shook their heads repeatedly during the hearing, sometimes laughing incredulously. Carrying bottles filled with the tainted water, the group wore shirts that read “Flint Lives Matter.”
With the committee Republicans seeking to rake the EPA over the coals for its handling of the water crisis, Hedman instead laid blame on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
By law, the EPA could not act until the state agency failed to do so, Hedman said.
“The bad news is that this problem should never have happened in the first place, and I need to remind you: EPA had nothing to do with that,” Hedman said.
Hedman said she learned that the eastern Michigan factory town was not using the legally required corrosion-control treatment for its water supply on June 30, 2015 – over a year since Flint switched from the Detroit water system in April 2014 as a cost-cutting measure.
Though the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality took the EPA’s advice in July 2015, directing Flint to implement corrosion control, Hedman said the “MDEQ was slow to deliver on the agreement.”
Unlike the EPA’s successful cooperation with state agencies to address the Toledo water crisis of 2014, Hedman said the federal government found itself hamstrung by the ineffective enforcement options of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Hedman concluded her opening statements Tuesday by defending her resignation and role in the water crisis. She called the allegations that she stood by passively as Flint was poisoned “false,” and blamed such charges for forcing her to leave her post.
“I did not make the catastrophic decision to provide drinking water without corrosion control treatment,” Hedman said. “I did not vote to cut funding for water infrastructure or for EPA; And I did not design the imperfect statutory framework that we rely on to keep our drinking water safe. But I was the regional administrator when this crisis occurred.”
Hedman tried to deny insinuations that she covered up a memo from EPA scientist Miguel Del Toro that identified lead-poisoning concerns in the Flint water.
Though Hedman said she simply warned Flint Mayor Dayne Walling that the memo was preliminary and incomplete, Rep. John Mica, R-Fl., said “a high schooler” could have realized the importance of the memo.
With Chaffetz pressing her about emails she exchanged with Walling after the press got hold of his letter, Hedman denied that apologized for the memo.
What Hedman had been apologizing for, she said, was that she took an entire day to get back to Walling because she had been out of the office for a medical procedure.
In the email to Walling, Hedman warns that the memo details a “preliminary draft” of a report that should not have gotten out of the agency.
Though Hedman insisted the memo’s findings were specific to one house with a defective service line and two others that returned inconclusive results, Chaffetz strongly disagreed with her.
“This is where you’re fundamentally and totally wrong, Ms. Hedman,” Chaffetz said. “If you don’t recognize that now – we’re in mid-March 2016 and you still don’t get it. You still don’t get it. And neither does the EPA administrator. You screwed up. And you messed up people’s lives.”
Members of the audience applauded after Chaffetz admonished Hedman.
The committee then turned its focus to the EPA’s handling of Del Toro after his memo leaked. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., pointed to a series of emails that indicated the EPA stopped Del Toro from traveling to a conference in Milwaukee, which the scientist believed was in retaliation for his memo.
Chaffetz balked when Hedman denied that her department retaliated against Del Toro.
“You really believe that?” Chaffetz asked.
When Rep. Elijah Cummings took a turn at questioning Hedman, the Maryland Democrat asked the witness whether she was aware she was under oath.
Cummings repeated the question, after Hedman confirmed, of whether her department retaliated against Del Toro.
Hedman again said it did not. She added her deputy, who was filling in for her when Del Toro was worried about retaliation, even took steps to make sure Del Toro was protected.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., gave Hedman a final chance to change her testimony, but Hedman repeated her claims.
“My sworn testimony is that I certainly did not, and I have no knowledge of anyone in EPA who did so,” Hedman said.
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who has worked closely on the Flint crisis, refuted Hedman’s claims, saying Del Toro certainly felt he was being retaliated against.
“I don’t think Ms. Hedman understands the climate she created at Region Five of the EPA,” Edwards said. “Even before Mr. Del Toro wrote that memo, he told me that he had to protect Flint’s children while minimizing the likelihood he would be retaliated against.”
Hedman’s repeated insistence that the EPA had nothing to do with the crisis did not sit well with members of the committee or with the other witnesses who testified at the hearing.
Edwards was especially critical of Hedman’s deflection.
“It’s completely unacceptable and criminal, frankly,” Edwards said when Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., asked him about Hedman’s statements washing the EPA’s hands of the Flint crisis.
Edwards was just as pointed during his opening statements.
“Ms. Hedman said EPA had nothing to do with creating Flint,” the professor testified. “EPA had everything to do with creating Flint.”
Members of the committee also took turns roasting Walling and former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley about their roles in the city’s poisoning.
Walling and Earley each pointed the finger at the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, saying the agencies did not give them the proper information that would have allowed them to fight the crisis. They noted the Flint government was fighting potential outbreaks of several diseases in the water before the lead issue ever came to light.
“We continued to rely on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality,” Earley said. “And until such time as they deemed the water unsafe to drink, we were doing all that we could to manage the contamination and also make water accessible at home.”
Earley insisted he was not made aware of the lead poisoning problem early on, and Walling said he was disappointed in the state’s response to the crisis.
Several members of the committee took note of the web of blame the witnesses at the hearing were crafting.
“I think this hearing is going to be known as the Great Finger-Pointing Hearing,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said. “We’ve got Flint mayor throwing people under the bus; we’ve got Flint former emergency manager throwing people under the bus; we’ve got Ms. Hedman, a former EPA administrator for that area, throwing people under the bus. But somewhere it seems like people were asleep at the tap not doing their job.”
After the hearing Cummings echoed Micha’s concerns.
“As far as today’s hearing was concerned, again, I was a bit disappointed that we just had everybody trying to blame everybody else,” Cummings told reporters after the hearing.
Tuesday’s hearing was the second in a three-part series of hearings before the committee about the Flint water crisis. The final installment is set for Thursday, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy are scheduled to take their seats behind the witness table.
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