The Environmental Protection Agency faced harsh criticism at a congressional hearing Wednesday from lawmakers and activists for not taking more aggressive action to combat the spread of contaminated water in Flint, Mich., though the agency itself pointed the finger primarily at state and local officials.
Lawmakers promised a whole of government response to the crisis of lead-contaminated water, calling for federal agencies to join in the state’s response to alleviating the situation and accountability for those who allowed it to unfold. Members of both parties criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for not taking a more active role once unsafe levels of lead were detected, but Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee stressed the failure laid primarily with the state government of Michigan. Their Republican counterparts were more willing to spread the blame around.
“This is not a natural disaster, it’s a human disaster,” said Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich. It was “brought on by failure of government at all levels.”
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who represents Flint, said the EPA should have done more to make data public. But placing blame on the federal agency amounts to a “false equivalency,” he said.
“I want to hold the EPA accountable,” Kildee said, “but let’s make sure we have the facts right.” He added that the state’s Environmental Quality Department lied to the EPA about having corrosion control in place.
The EPA has come under fire for failing to disclose a June internal memorandum by one of its drinking water experts -- Miguel Del Toral -- that found unsafe levels of contamination in Flint’s drinking water. Marc Edwards, a drinking water expert and professor at Virginia Tech, told the committee the EPA was “unworthy of the public trust.”
Edwards also accused EPA of retaliating against Del Toral for speaking out on Flint’s contaminated water. EPA “employees causing trouble by doing their jobs are not allowed to do their jobs,” he said.
The oversight committee held a hearing in July looking into mismanagement -- including whistleblower retaliation -- at the same EPA region (Region 5) accused of hiding its findings on Flint’s water. The head of that region, Susan Hedman, resigned on Monday. The committee issued a subpoena to require Hedman’s testimony. John J. O’Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ local that represents the EPA’s Region 5 workforce, wrote in a letter to the committee ahead of the hearing that the current crisis is “an example of politics and protocol at its worse.”
“It is a sad point in the history of the U.S. EPA that rather than being an agency Americans can count on to protect them, it has not,” O’Grady said.
EPA officials said the agency is taking steps to address the crisis in a transparent way, noting officials have already deployed an EPA Flint Task Force. That group includes response personnel, scientists, water quality experts, community involvement coordinators and support staff. On Jan. 21, EPA issued an emergency order to the state and local government with specifications to bring the drinking water system in compliance with regulations. Joel Beauvais, acting Deputy Assistant Administrator at EPA's Office of Water, told the committee the agency is working on providing the first meaningful, long-term update to the Lead and Copper Rule in 25 years.
Beauvais acknowledged EPA bore some culpability, but noted it was the state of Michigan that made the decision to switch Flint’s water supply to the Flint River.
“Everyone should’ve done everything humanly possible to avoid this,” he said. “But I do think it’s important to remember how we got into this situation.” The EPA inspector general announced last month it would conduct an investigation into the Flint water contamination, and the agency has promised to deliver to the committee more documents related to the crisis by the end of the week.
Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, assailed Beauvais for pleading ignorance instead of answering a series of questions, especially after the EPA official said he did not know why EPA “sat on” Del Toral’s initial findings for almost one year.
“Why don’t we fire the whole lot of them?” Chaffetz asked. “What good is the EPA if they’re not going to [publicize that information]?”
He said the panel’s focus on EPA shortcomings was not meant to “excuse” what happened at the state, county or city level, but merely a result of the committee’s jurisdictional limits. He added issues had been “festering at the EPA for a long time.”
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said it was “despicable” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy did not visit Flint personally before Tuesday. He said there was plenty of blame to go around, but “some of that blame should go to the EPA, and it should go to the head honcho.” He also brought up one of EPA’s previous failures.
“This is the same EPA that knew about what was going to happen in the mine blowout in Colorado,” Gosar said.
Some in Congress are looking for a far greater federal response. An amendment to the Energy Policy and Modernization Act introduced on Tuesday by lawmakers from Michigan would give the EPA up to $400 million in emergency funding to hire new employees and contractors in response to the crisis, as well as to provide grants to replace piping in Flint. It would also require the EPA to warn citizens across the country of unsafe lead levels “if a state fails to do so.”
Members of both parties promised to ensure proper punishment for anyone involved in the crisis.
“I don’t care if it’s EPA, if it’s local, if it’s state,” said the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “I want everyone that’s responsible for this fiasco held accountable.”
Asked after the hearing if more EPA employees should be fired, Chaffetz said some workers should potentially face jail time for falsifying records and withholding information.
“I hope the Department of Justice is taking a look at it,” Chaffetz said.