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Was EPA Unwilling to ‘Go Out on a Limb’ for Flint?

Committee explores federal, state role in water crisis

Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters wipes away tears as she and her husband Dennis attend a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the city's water crisis on Tuesday, (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters wipes away tears as she and her husband Dennis attend a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the city's water crisis on Tuesday, (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In the depth of Flint, Mich.’s water crisis – months after federal and state officials learned that the city’s tap water showed alarming levels of lead and bacteria but months before they alerted the public – an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official discouraged a colleague from using federal money to buy water filters for the city residents.  

“I’m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for,” Region 5 Water Division Branch Chief Debbie Baltazar wrote to the regional administrator and others, in a September email disclosed at a congressional hearing Tuesday. Baltazar went on to express concerns about the city’s past use of sewer and water fees for other priorities.  

Members of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said this and other documents showed a pattern of indifference among federal and state officials toward the plight of the residents of Flint – a largely African American community that is among the poorest and most crime-ridden cities in the country.  

“Was this driven by race? Was this driven by the fact that this was a poor city? Was this because they were underserved?” Chairman Justin Chaffetz, R-Utah asked during opening statements.  

“Why isn’t Flint the community they go to? Of all the communities out there, the one having the toughest time is the one that needs the most protection.”  

As Congress probes who was responsible for the crisis and what the federal government can do to address water quality concerns here and elsewhere, lawmakers from both parties Tuesday focused their wrath on federal and state officials who knew of the problem as early as June 2015, yet did not begin adding chemicals to the city’s water to address the contamination until December 9.  

The inquiry will continue Thursday, when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, is scheduled to testify Thursday with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.  

Tuesday’s hearing brought the the EPA’s former regional administrator Susan Hedman, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and the city’s former financial administrator Darnell Earley. All three acknowledged responsibility for a limited role in the city’s water crisis, but said that they were misled by scientific experts and stymied by others who shared decision-making power in the city.  

Earley and Walling testified Tuesday that state officials never told them that the water running through their pipes was contaminated with lead, poisoning tens of thousands of residents.  

“We relied on the experts to verify that the water would not pose any threat to the community,” Earley testified. “The experts failed us.”  

Earley acknowledged that he knew about bacteria contamination and that the water was rusting newly manufactured parts at a local factory, but experts did not tell him that the city should switch to another water source.  

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, Ranking member of the committee, was incredulous.  

“Mr Earley, I’ve got to tell you I almost vomited when I heard you say something a moment ago. You said that even after you found out that newly manufactured parts were starting to rust out by using the Flint water that you didn’t see that as a problem. Wait a minute now, I’m confused. If they’re going to rust out newly manufactured parts, you mean that doesn’t send you a warning that maybe human beings could be harmed? Come on now.”  

Earley said he relied on the state and EPA experts to make that assessment.  

“A 5-year-old could figure that out,” Cummings responded.  

The hearing opened with a video clip of then-Mayor Walling on a July 2015 local newscast drinking tap water from a coffee mug and assuring residents that it was safe.  

“Now it tastes very similar to any other tap water,” Walling said in the clip, as he sipped from a coffee mug.  “It’s got a little bit of a chlorine taste to it.”  

Walling lost his bid for re-election last fall, in part because of anger over water quality.  

He testified that the assurances he gave the public were guided my misinformation he received from state and federal experts, and that once he became aware of a problem he had little authority to address it.  

“The recommendations I made, along with the Flint City Council and many other elected officials, community and faith leaders and activists were discounted by the emergency managers and Governor Snyder going back more than a year,” he said.  

The panel was not impressed by his or others’ statements. “I think this hearing is going to be known as the great finger-pointing hearing.” Said Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla.  

But committee members reserved the brunt of their criticism for Hedman, who resigned in the wake of the scandal.  

She testified that she found out on June 30 that the city was not treating the water with chemicals that would stop the pipes from corroding and leaching lead into the water, but state officials did not respond to her requests to implement those controls, and the EPA was hamstrung by federal regulations that restrict the agency’s ability to enforce its rules.  

“I don’t think anyone at the EPA did anything wrong,” she said. “But I do think we could have done more.”  

Hedman’s voice cracked and she appeared to be choking back tears when she said, “I have not stopped worrying about the people of Flint.”  

But committee members said there was plenty more she could have done.  

“You still don’t get it,” Chaffetz said. “You screwed up, and you messed up people’s lives.”  

They pointed to a series of memos by EPA scientist Miguel Del Toral that were leaked to local media by a Flint resident. Del Toral first noticed elevated levels of lead in Flint residents’ drinking water in February and expressed increasing alarm.  

He also wrote in emails Chaffetz read to the committee that his appeals to his supervisors were ignored and that he was forced to take an ethics class and stripped of his responsibilities.  

Hedman, however, said she had meted out, “no discipline whatsoever.” On the contrary, she had recommended him for one of the agency’s most prestigious awards.  

“I want to make sure you are clear what you are saying,” Cummings responded. “I would not want you to be subjected to any criminal inquiry. Did you retaliate against Mr. del Toral?”  

“Absolutely not,” Hedman said.  

The hearing took place against a backdrop of a Congress still trying to grapple with its response to the revelations from Flint.  

Nearly 100 House Democrats sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee requesting at least $4 billion in fiscal year 2017 to protect drinking water and repair failing water infrastructure systems throughout the country.  

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