The finger-pointing surrounding the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Mich., expanded on Tuesday as the Environmental Protection Agency’s since-resigned regional manager told lawmakers her agency did nothing wrong and that she did not retaliate against a whistleblower.
EPA “did not do anything wrong, but could have done more,” said Susan Hedman, who resigned Feb. 1 as head of EPA’s Region 5.
Within three weeks of receiving a memo warning of water contamination, EPA had offered technical assistance to Flint’s mayor, issued its first statement urging residents to test their water and offering tips on limiting lead exposure, and gotten the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to agree to a recommendation to require Flint to implement corrosion control, Hedman testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in the second of three planned hearings on the crisis.
EPA repeated “emphatically” and “urgently” that “it’s important to implement corrosion control as soon as possible,” she said. But by this January, “I was widely portrayed in the media as someone who . . . sat on the sidelines during the crisis . . . and . . . downplayed concerns raised by an EPA scientist about lead in the water,” she told lawmakers, saying there was no time in January to counter that image. “Knowing what I know now, I wished we had issued more frequent and urgent alerts” and verified the Michigan department’s facts.
The potential repercussions of the state’s efforts to save money by switching Flint’s water source came to light after one of Hedman’s staff drinking water experts, Miguel del Toral, researched and wrote a lengthy memo in June 2015 documenting Flint’s likely health problems and risks.
“EPA responded in the only way we could,” Hedman testified, “by working within the cooperative federalism framework of the Safe Drinking Water Act. That framework assigns legal primacy to states to implement drinking water regulations and gives EPA the job of setting standards and providing technical assistance.” During the weeks and months that followed, she added, the Michigan environmental department “was slow to deliver on the agreement we reached on July 21, and the City of Flint was hampered by a lack of institutional capacity and resources.”
Under skeptical questioning from Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Hedman rebutted allegations that she retaliated against del Toral by denying him travel privileges or forced him into ethics training. “I offered him a bonus and our highest award, but he declined because he said his work was not finished,” she told lawmakers.
She also denied reports that she counseled the Flint leaders to ignore del Toral’s warnings. She said his memo was narrowly focused on a few Flint residents—a characterization rebutted by a key player, Virginia Tech professor of environmental and water engineering Marc Edwards. He accused Hedman of longtime aiding and abetting of the EPA’s “willful blindness” toward risks to water supply safety.
Far from silencing whistleblowers or ignoring the looming crisis, Hedman replied, she was on medical leave with a trusted deputy in charge during one key period. She also said she had sought a quick release of del Toral’s memo to the public before it appeared in the press, but was delayed by the need to redact personally identifiable information, law enforcement strategies and a final check for quality control.
Some lawmakers expressed “shock” at her statements—and similar denials of neglect by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy published Tuesday in a Washington Post op-ed. “You still don’t get it that you screwed up, neither does Gina,” Chaffetz said. “You messed up people’s lives.”
Specifically, Chaffetz accused Hedman of delaying action from June 2015 to December. “How many more people were poisoned in those seven months? How many illnesses were worsened in those seven months?” he demanded.
Hedman, who arrived late for the hearing, also explained her reasons for her resignation. “Having spent my entire adult life as an advocate for environmental and public health issues – and much of that time representing citizen groups – I knew that only one thing mattered to Flint residents: the water wasn’t safe to drink,” she said. “What happened in Flint, should not have happened anywhere in United States – and I was horrified that it happened in my region, the Great Lakes Region. I thought – and still think – that resigning was the honorable thing to do. Although I have left government service – I have not stopped worrying about the people of Flint.”
Chaffetz said Hedman’s resignation “doesn’t heal the sick and ease the suffering of the residents of Flint.” And after hearing her answers on allegations of management retaliation against whistleblowers through sexual harassment, the chairman said, “I wish you were still at the EPA so I could call on you to be fired.”
Democrats, though equally frustrated at the complications of assigning blame, focused on the state of Michigan -- its governor, regulators and emergency financial manager -- as having final authority. “I have heard Republicans focus their criticism almost exclusively on the EPA,” said panel ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “I agree that EPA officials could have done more, and I agree that everyone at fault must be held accountable. But under federal law and regulations, states have the ‘primary’ responsibility to enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
In this case, Cummings added, quoting from a governor’s task force report, Michigan officials displayed an “abysmal public response,” and their actions were “simply insufficient to the task of public protection.”
Among the harshest critics of EPA was Prof. Edwards, who accused the agency of “criminal silence,” indifference to pain and suffering, and being “unremorseful, unrepentant and unable to learn from its mistakes.” He added, “If a landlord did this, he would be in jail.” The EPA “had everything to do with creating Flint,” Edwards said, and has harmed cities all over the United States by “effectively condoning cheating on lead and copper monitoring since 2006.”
Michigan witnesses also generated skepticism. Former Flint Mayor Dayne Willing struggled to explain why he went on television and drank Flint’s water to demonstrate its safety even though residents’ experiences were less healthful. He criticized the state’s “focus on balancing the city’s books and choosing low cost at the expense of human consequences.”
Former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley had to explain why he failed to intervene, arguing that the issue was never presented to him as a risk of lead in the water. “We were grossly misled by the experts at MDEQ and EPA,” he said. “But we were at the mercy of their scientific and regulatory analysis – indeed it would have been extremely unreasonable for any of us, given what we were being told at the time, to reject their guidance, and attempt to make independent decisions on such a highly sophisticated and scientific subject matter.”
McCarthy and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder are scheduled to testify on Thursday.
“What happened in Flint can never happen again,” Chaffetz said. “Government at every level—local, state and federal—made poor decisions. And our role of our committee is to ensure federal agencies and employees do their job.”