With the citizens of Flint, Mich., still unable to drink tap water or take a shower safely, a Thursday House hearing featuring two principal players devolved into competing demands for the resignation of either the governor of Michigan or the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The shouting about conflicting narratives on how Flint’s water became lead-contaminated also unveiled differing views on the role of an EPA whistleblower in the crisis and whether he suffered retaliation from federal managers.
“You need to take some responsibility for your screw-ups, you messed up 100,000 people’s lives,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said to EPA chief Gina McCarthy. “You should do the courageous thing and resign.”
Chaffetz acknowledged that Michigan’s government “shares a big part of the blame,” but said EPA staff were serving on the state’s technical support team and yet they ignored warnings of lead in the water. He scolded McCarthy for “blaming the Bush administration” for a previous streamlining of the lead and copper rule and faulted EPA for delaying an update of the Safe Drinking Act.
The other witness, Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, in the months of run-up to exposure of lead in Flint’s water, proved himself “an absentee governor who can’t be trusted to lead,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., the panel’s ranking member. “I agree that EPA should have done more, but there was utter incompetence at every level, and the Republicans are trying to blame everything on EPA.”
Snyder ignored “warnings for more than a year as children grew sicker and sicker,” Cummings said, citing emails from Snyder’s inner circle discussing the risks early on. “If this had happened in a business, the CEO would have been brought up on criminal charges.”
McCarthy expressed regret for her agency’s “missed opportunities” to “put concerns about water on the radar screen” during the seven months in 2015 when agencies were talking about the threat but not intervening. But she said EPA staff were shut out by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality which, under the law, has primary authority while EPA is charged with oversight. “What happened should never have happened, and should never be allowed to happen again,” she said. “The state-appointed emergency manager switched to untreated water for the simple reason that he wanted to save money.”
But “I do think the system failed, and yes I have welcomed an opportunity to intervene more aggressively,” McCarthy said. “I wish we’d gone farther and shouted from the rooftops.” She said she didn’t think specialists would have to come out and say that Michigan shouldn’t move from a treated water system to an untreated system. Michigan authorities gave EPA staff “incomplete, inaccurate and confusing information,” McCarthy said. “In hindsight, we should not have been so trusting of the state.”
Her retrospective look at the record from 2015, McCarthy added, “shows an ongoing regular dialogue” between the Michigan department and EPA, “But I was ready to get sick that they were not acting, they were fighting.”
Snyder, who had previously apologized but vowed to remedy the crisis, said, “Let me be blunt: this was a failure of government at all levels; it’s not political or partisan.” Disavowing any effort to shift blame, he said, “There’s not a night I don’t ask myself what questions I should have asked and ways I could have prevented” this, he said. “The people working for me made a tragic mistake” [in shifting the water supply] and “called for two six-month studies. They believed in what they were doing, but where was their common sense?”
The governor’s narrative held that his department had assured him Flint’s water was safe, but it wasn’t. He cited “a systemic failure in a bureaucratic culture that values technical compliance over common sense.” He accused EPA of silencing a federal water expert who tried to raise the alarm in February 2015. Once the gravity of the situation was clear in October, Snyder added, he took immediate action, including switching water suppliers, conducting heath tests and finding $67 million for short- and long-term solutions.
That didn’t fly with Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., who called for Snyder’s resignation, noting that Snyder waited until January to declare a state of emergency. “Plausible deniability only works when plausible,” Cartwright added, saying the EPA regional official who resigned over the affair had only a tenth of the responsibility owned by Snyder. Cartwright also accused the governor of phony contrition, comparing it to “men who strike wives and then say, ‘Sorry dear, but there were failures at all levels.’ ”
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., took the opposite view of now-resigned EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman’s role. “The [EPA] regional administrator is getting vacation time bonuses while the kids are getting poisoned,” he told McCarthy. “This [EPA report] is dated in June and not a damn thing was done, until January of this year. … Now I heard calls for resignation – I think you [EPA Administrator McCarthy] should be at the top of the list.”
Several Republicans accused EPA of gagging and retaliating against EPA Region 5 drinking water specialist Miguel del Toral after he wrote a June 2015 memo warning of water contamination in three Flint homes.
McCarthy disputed the allegations, saying that del Toral’s memo, though narrow, was immediately made public. “Miguel was the person everyone turned to, in no way did we sideline him,” she said. It was the Michigan department that spread the word he was a “rogue employee,” she added. McCarthy also complimented one of her fiercest critics in the episode, Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, whom she called “a good scientist” who has a contract with EPA.
Asked by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., whether she would have fired Hedman had she not resigned, McCarthy said, “It’s not a decision I had to face, but I accepted her resignation and thought it the right step to take.”
McCarthy laid out steps she has taken at EPA since the crisis erupted, including visits to the Flint community, requesting an inspector general’s investigation of the EPA response and a staffwide memo encouraging employees to come forward with safety warnings and send them up the hierarchy.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., decried what he called the committee’s “Alice in Wonderland, off with their heads” approach of calling for summary firings of leaders at EPA and the Internal Revenue Service. He said he’d documented that Snyder had not traveled to Flint for seven months after the crisis broke, and he displayed stacks of documents issued by Michigan’s emergency manager to argue that “not one” addressed the water crisis in Flint. He told Snyder, “This is a failure of a philosophy of government that you advocated.”
Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., challenged GOP notions of federalism and states’ rights. He cited calls from Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (who has now dropped out of the race) for abolishing the EPA, encouraging states to fight the agency and scaling back the Clean Water Act. “Obviously,” he added, “the state of Michigan did not know best.”
Snyder asked those in the hearing room to “partner with me in fixing this, not just for the people of Flint” but before it spreads to other cities. “I’m going back to Michigan tomorrow to roll up my sleeves and keep going,” the governor said.