Lawmakers lash out at key figures in Flint crisis

Getty Images

Lawmakers of both parties took the opportunity Tuesday to lash out at key local, state and federal officials for their roles in the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis.

As the former Flint mayor, state-appointed emergency manager and federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official in charge of the region tried to blame others, House lawmakers at a hearing Tuesday hit multiple decisions that each made.

ADVERTISEMENT
Susan Hedman, former regional administrator for the EPA’s Great Lakes area, and Darnell Earley, the emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) at the time to oversee Flint, bore the brunt of the House Oversight Committee’s tongue-lashing over the lead and other contaminants in Flint’s drinking water.

“Ms. Hedman and the EPA communicated to the mayor that it was safe to drink the water, and that message was then conveyed to the citizens,” said Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzOvernight Energy: Obama signs chemical safety reform into law House caucus to focus on business in Latin America Freedom Caucus urges vote on impeaching IRS commissioner MORE (R-Utah), the panel’s chairman. “EPA had every opportunity to make the right move, but they didn’t.”

Later, referring to Hedman’s actions when one of her employees tried to push for action on the matter, Chaffetz said, “you still don’t get it, and neither does the EPA administrator. You screwed up, and you messed up people’s lives.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said there was “unusual deference on the part of federal officials,” and she was surprised that the federal government didn’t speak up publicly about the crisis.

She told Earley that Flint residents complained about the water long before the city switched back to using Detroit’s water, away from the Flint River that caused the problems.

“Those complaints continued eight months, while you were emergency manager of Flint,” she told Earley. “Did you ever consider, given those complaints, switching back to Detroit water, once the public started to sicken and to speak out?”

Earley said he had no reason to suspect a lead problem, based on what Michigan and EPA officials told him.

“I believe, based on the information we were given, we acted responsibly, and did what we did knowing the information we had at the time,” he said.

The Tuesday event was Oversight’s second attempt to get to the bottom of Flint’s crisis. The city switched to the Flint River for its drinking water in April 2014, under orders from the state, as part of a money-saving switch away from Detroit’s water and toward an eventual water supply from Lake Huron.

But the city quickly saw multiple problems from the river water, including various bacteria, lead and other contaminants. It eventually switched back last year.

“There were numerous red flags that should have led the state to agree to return to the Detroit water system,” Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said, faulting Earley’s management. “The response was always the same: it was not in the emergency manager’s financial plan for the city to return to the Detroit water system.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the committee’s top Democrat, told Hedman he was glad she resigned.

“There’s something going on in that region 5 that we need to deal with. And I don’t know exactly what it is, but there are problems,” he said.

But he saved most of his anger for Earley.

“I almost vomited when I heard you say something a moment ago,” he said, making reference to Earley’s decision not to switch away from the Flint River even after the local General Motors plant said the water was unusable.

“Wait a minute now, I’m confused. If they’re going to rust out newly manufactured parts, you say that doesn’t send you a warning that maybe human beings might be being harmed? Come on, now,” Cummings said.

Earley said he isn’t a water treatment expert, and he relied on experts at the state and federal levels.

“You don’t have to be a water treatment expert. A 5-year-old could figure that out,” Cummings responded.

Earley defended his actions and said he’s been unfairly maligned for his decisions.

“I believe that I have been unjustly persecuted, vilified and smeared, both personally and professional, in the media, and by some local, state and federal officials, as well by a misinformed public,” he said.

Hedman had a similar statement about herself.

“I did not sit on the sidelines, and I did not downplay any concerns raised by EPA scientists or apologize for any memos they wrote — in fact, I repeatedly asked for a final memo about lead in a form that EPA could publicly release,” she said.

Dayne Walling, Flint’s former mayor, largely avoided criticism, because all of his decisions could be overridden by Earley or other emergency managers.

“The regulators provided false assurances to us about the safety of the water and withheld risks. Gov. Snyder, unfortunately, discounted local concerns and did not act with urgency,” Walling said.

“I didn’t sign one purchasing contract or purchasing resolution during the time that the emergency managers were in place.”

Snyder and EPA head Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyDozens of senators push EPA for higher ethanol mandate The Hill's 12:30 Report Overnight Energy: Obama signs chemical safety reform into law MORE, who were the targets of much of the lawmakers’ criticisms, will head to the committee Thursday for their own hearing.