At today’s hearing on the Flint water crisis before the House Oversight and Government Reform, Democratic committee members made it clear time and time again that the poisoning of Flint’s drinking water with lead was the responsibility of the state government and the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder.
On the other hand, Republican committee members spent the vast majority of their time trying to prove that the entire problem was the fault of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is clear from who actually gave testimony at the hearing.
Dan Wyant, the disgraced former director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), was appointed by the governor and was a man with no previous experience with drinking water or with the treatment of water to ensure its safety.
He was not called to testify.
Three previous Flint Emergency Managers, Jerry Ambrose, Ed Kurtz, and Darnell Earley, all played significant roles in the lead contamination since they were, to paraphrase former Benton Harbor Emergency Manager Joe Harris, the ones “running the city.” “You’re running the city,” he told Emergency Manager trainees. “You are the Mayor. You are the Commission.” In other words, the proverbial buck stops with them. This would be true even if the Flint City Council had wholeheartedly endorsed switching to the Flint River for their drinking water which they DID. NOT.
None of these three men gave testimony today. Ambrose and Kurtz weren’t even invited and Earley refused to answer a subpoena issued after he declined the Committee Chair’s invitation. At the start of the hearing today, Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz vowed to send U.S. Marshals after Earley to “hunt him down” and make him testify.
UPDATE: Following blistering new headlines about it, Earley has now decided he will, in fact, testify at a future hearing.
The EPA whistleblower Miguel Del Toral issued a scathing condemnation of the DEQ as well as the EPA in his must-read June 24, 2015 memo (read it HERE.) Mr. Del Toral outlined in great detail how the DEQ lied to the EPA about phosphate treatment that was, in fact, not occurring.
Mr. Del Toral also was not present to testify because, although he was invited, the EPA did not “make him available”.
Finally, Gov. Snyder himself is, perhaps, the most central character in this entire fiasco. It is HIS policy of Emergency Management that brought us here. It is HIS personally-appointed Emergency Managers that executed his austerity policies in hard-hit urban centers which led to the poisoning of Flint’s drinking water. It was HIS personally-appointed DEQ director – a man with no qualifications for the job – who headed the department that failed in its responsibility so profoundly.
Gov. Snyder was not present to testify and, in fact, was never invited.
The absence of these important actors in the Flint water crisis along with the questions asked by the Republicans on the Committee, particularly the Chair Jason Chaffetz, made it quite clear that their focus was on attacking the EPA.
Some of the most impressive testimony came from Congressman Dan Kildee. However, all of those who testified paled in comparison to Flint resident and activist LeeAnn Walters. She gave a firsthand account of how the state of Michigan failed her, her family (including her lead-poisoned son), and the city of Flint. Despite being an “average citizen”, her testimony was powerful, delivered with unwavering steadfastness.
Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards was also a rock star during the hearing. He has no love of the EPA and holds the agency responsible for countless failures to protect Americans and our environment. He reiterated that the corrosive impacts of Flint River water could have been entirely mitigated by an inexpensive – “$80-100 a day” – phosphate treatment which was not part of the water treatment plan for the Flint River water that DEQ approved. He also explained that DEQ didn’t just forget to add the phosphate, they actively chose NOT to add it because Flint was moving to the Karegnondi Water Authority system so adding it would have been “a waste of time”. “When we got involved in August, as a matter of fact,” he told the Committee, “There’s an MDEQ memo that said, ‘Shouldn’t someone tell those folks from Virginia Tech that we’re switching to the pipeline next year so they don’t bother wasting their time on this issue?'”
As it turns out, the KWA pipeline won’t be open for business until this summer at the earliest, over two years after Flint’s switch to the Detroit River.
Prof. Edwards was very clear that the primary responsibility for the lead problem in Flint lies at the feet of the DEQ officials in charge at the time. But he’s also clearly very disgusted with the actions of the EPA in this and other situations and has strong feelings that things need to change. He had particular disdain for the lies and cover-up by Susan Hedman who he described as the “top cop at the EPA” for our region.
Major kudos go to Ranking Committee Member Democrat Elijah Cummings. He spelled out what Emergency Management has done to Michigan and, more specifically, to the people poisoned in Flint. He was on fire during his time at the microphone.
Watch it here:
Rep. Cummings finished by saying, “This isn’t about a gotchya, I swear to God. But you gotta know what happened so you can correct it.”
Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly was also excellent, calling the Flint water crisis a result of “social Darwinism”. Michigan Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence made strong points, as well, as she tried to ferret out the truth along with her other Democratic colleagues.
There’s no question that EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman was a colossal failure and we’re well rid of her. And there’s no question that, as Professor Edwards made abundantly clear in his powerful testimony and answers to questions presented to him, the EPA “aided and abetted” the DEQ’s cover-up and obfuscation and has epically failed to respond to years of FOIA requests from Edwards and others like him. Hopefully these things will change. But keep in mind that Republicans kneecap and hinder the EPA in doing its job nearly every day. Any efforts for reform of the EPA and its practices by the Republicans on this Committee need to be viewed through that lens.
What this hearing hopefully has helped to do is ensure that the entire country knows how lead ended up in Flint’s water. It was the terrible decision-making by the DEQ under the Snyder administration and Flint’s Emergency Managers, appointed by Gov. Snyder, that created this human-made disaster. No amount of effort by Republican members of Congress to put the entire blame on the EPA changes that.