Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and EPA head Gina McCarthy were grilled before a House committee hearing today over their handling of lead tainted water in Flint, Michigan. The hearings were the third held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee since the crisis made national news late last year.
In a rare display of bipartisan rage, both Republicans and Democrat committee members berated Snyder and the EPA for their handling of the lead poisoning crisis. In his opening statements, committee chair Jason Chaffetz expressed disgust at the disregard for Flint’s water quality, as revealed in internal EPA emails. “I’m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for,” read one internal EPA email written before the crisis became national news. “Are you kidding me?” he responded, after displaying that email to the room. He said there were numerous emails that have expressed the same sentiment.
Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings was equally angered by the inaction of the EPA, although he reserved his harshest criticism for Michigan’s governor. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if a corporate CEO had done what Governor Snyder’s administration had done, he would be hauled up on criminal charges,” he said. Cummings had berated Snyder for running his state like a corporation.
Cummings pinned blame for the crisis squarely on Snyder and his administration, from approving the switch to Flint River’s contaminated water to overriding a city council vote to return Flint to Detroit’s cleaner drinking water system to systematic disregard for complaints raised by residents over the dirty water. “His fingerprints are all over this,” Cummings said.
Snyder’s administration is already subject to investigation regarding Flint’s poisoned water. Todd Flood, special counsel to the state attorney general’s office, said that he was not ruling out the possibility of manslaughter charges being made once the investigation concluded.
Snyder, for his part, denied responsibility, saying the state’s Department of Environmental Quality consistently maintained that the water was safe to drink. “It was only on October 1, 2015 that I learned our state experts were wrong,” he told the committee. “On that day, I took immediate action.”
Other Democrats also joined in on berating Snyder. Pennsylvania Democrat Matt Cartwright, after spending much of his allotted time making the Michigan governor admit guilt to various aspects of the Flint water crisis, said that Snyder should resign due to the overwhelming amount of local reporting on the city’s water quality, which he chose to ignore until it became national news. “Plausible deniability only works when it’s plausible and I’m not buying that you didn’t know about any of this until October 2015,” said Cartwright, cutting off Snyder. “You were not in a medically induced coma for a year.”
According to a timeline by the Detroit Free Press, there had been numerous boiled water advisories in Flint starting in August 2014, barely six months following the city’s switch to the Flint River as its water source. Then in October, General Motors’ Flint plant announced it was switching out of the city’s water supply, because Flint’s water was causing metal parts to corrode. In January 2015, the city warned its residents of elevated levels of a liver and kidney damaging chemical present in the disinfectant used to treat the city’s water.
That same month, the city’s emergency manager, Darnell Earley rejected an offer to reconnect Flint to Detroit’s water system. The timeline revealed constant efforts by the DEQ and Governor Snyder to downplay concerns by Flint residents and the EPA on the quality of Flint’s drinking water.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy was also made to testify in front of the committee. She cast blame on the state-appointed emergency managers — already unpopular with voters who rejected their mandate — as the ones who advised that Flint switch its water supply as a cost cutting measure. “The state of Michigan approved that decision without requiring corrosion control treatment,” she said, shifting blame onto state authorities, rather than her agency. “The state provided our regional office with confusing, incomplete and absolutely incorrect information.” She called the crisis a “missed opportunity” for the EPA to address the problem.
But that wasn’t enough for some lawmakers. Michigan Democrat Robin Kelly accused the EPA of abetting “environmental racism,” given the majority of Flint’s residents are black. Committee chairman Chaffetz told McCarthy that he thought she should resign. “You had the authority and the backing of the federal government, and you did not act,” he said. “If you want to do the courageous thing, then you should resign too.”
It seems unlikely that either Snyder or McCarthy will resign, given they haven’t already. A rough day in front of a House committee is unlikely to change that. And while they may have been comfortable drinking their bottled water through the duration of the hearings, thousands of Flint residents indefinitely remain without clean water to bathe in and cook with.
Photo: The top of the Flint Water Plant tower as seen in Flint, Michigan. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/Files