Energy & Environment

Officials point fingers over Flint water crisis

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State and federal officials looked Wednesday to pin blame on each other for the slow response to the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich. 

During a heated hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday, Joel Beauvais, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official, said the state has the “primary responsibility” to enforce drinking water laws, something that didn’t happen in Flint, where lead levels in water have spiked over the last year. 

{mosads}But a state official said Flint itself is charged with operating a water plant and testing water quality there. He apologized to Flint residents and promised that state and federal investigations will clear up who is responsible for the toxic contamination. 

Congressional lawmakers examined the Flint crisis for the first time on Wednesday, seeking to determine who was at fault for both allowing the city to switch its drinking water from a treated source to an untreated one and then not acting swiftly enough to prevent lead levels from increasing or stopping people from consuming the tainted water.  

The EPA knew about the lead levels as early as last year and later informed state regulators of the problem. The agency has said that’s as much as it was able to do. Beauvais, the EPA’s acting deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Water, said state officials should have done more to enforce the law there and, in fact, should have stopped the water from becoming contaminated.

But Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) slammed the EPA’s response to the crisis, saying it should have publicized the lead problems earlier than it did.

“The crying shame here is, when they knew there was problem, they should have told the public, they should have told [state regulators],” he said. 

Susan Hedman, a former director of the EPA region that covers Flint, resigned in January. She was called to testify at Wednesday’s hearing but declined; Chaffetz said he has issued a subpoena to hear from her.

“The situation that gave rise to the current crisis in Flint — a large public water system switching from purchasing treated water to using an untreated water source — is highly unusual,” Beauvais said. “Under federal regulations, the city was required to obtain prior approval for the switch from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.”

The Department later told the city that corrosion treatment was not necessary, he said. 

“It’s the question of the day, and that’s what many of the auditors and reviews will have, which is: who made what decisions when,” said Keith Creagh, the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, when asked why the state didn’t respond to the EPA’s warnings about water quality.

Committee members, especially Democrats, slammed Michigan leaders for allowing the crisis to happen. An emergency manager for the city, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R), was behind the decision to switch Flint’s water supply, they said, supplanting local authority under a state law. 

Committee Democrats said on Wednesday that they would look to compel Snyder to appear before the panel and testify on the problems in Flint. 

“There is the federal government and EPA, and there is the state government,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) said. 

“Because under the emergency manager act in Michigan, the local government — the city of Flint — has no government authority over the decisions that were made and the actions that were taken. We can look at the state level and we can look at the federal level.”

Members of both parties were apoplectic over the water crisis in Flint. Chaffetz called it “a failing at every level” of government. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) said it was “outrageous that this sort of government-made catastrophe would happen anywhere in the U.S.” and called for deeper state and federal investigations into the problem. 

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the committee, said the focus should be on finding the causes of the problem regardless of which level of government is most at fault.

“I don’t care whether it’s EPA, whether it’s local, whether it’s state. I want everybody is responsible for this fiasco to be held accountable,” he said. 

“I’m not protecting anybody, because that’s not our job. We are the last line of defense.”

Tags Brenda Lawrence Elijah Cummings Environmental Protection Agency Flint Flint water crisis Jason Chaffetz Justin Amash Michigan

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