WASHINGTON — In the midst of a deepening investigation of the ongoing public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, U.S. House Republicans Wednesday looked past local and state failures and focused on indicting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
While members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee acknowledged blame lies at the local, state and federal levels, Republican lawmakers levied significant criticism against what they saw as the federal EPA’s failures in monitoring compliance by the city of Flint.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., called the events in Flint a “dynamic tragedy,” and criticized EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, who was not called to testify, for what he saw as the agency’s weak response to the crisis involving unsafe drinking water.
Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator at the EPA, said the agency knew about the situation in Flint as early as spring of last year.
Gosar said, “Administrator McCarthy knew about this crisis for eight months, but didn’t visit Flint until the day before a congressional hearing.”
After Beauvais said he didn’t think McCarthy had personally been aware of the issues in Flint over that entire period of time, Gosar blasted the EPA for not stressing the urgency of the matter internally.
The financially-troubled city of Flint, under the authority of emergency manager Darnell Earley, switched from the Detroit water authority to taking water directly from the Flint River. The state of Michigan has the power to appoint an emergency manager of a city in a financial emergency, and that manager has widespread powers — such as voiding collective bargaining agreements with unions.
When the city switched water sources, it failed to create a corrosive treatment plan, which is needed to prevent copper and lead in lead-lined water pipes — common in Flint — from seeping into the drinking water supply. A draft report by U.S. EPA manager Miguel Del Toral found extremely high levels of lead in the water at the home of Flint resident LeeAnne Walters’ home. But Walters, a witness at the hearing, and some others assert the report was suppressed by the agency.
Several children in Flint have been diagnosed with lead poisoning, including Walters’ four children, which can cause developmental and behavioral issues in children.
Susan Hedman, the U.S. EPA’s regional administrator during the Flint crisis, resigned at the end of January, a development that Oversight chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz called in a statement “long overdue.”
But Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., threw blame at Republicans for what he called constant attacks on the federal EPA, and a “political philosophy” seeking smaller, less involved government.
“This is the consequence of putting ideology ahead of human beings,” Connolly said. “And I want to see the (Michigan) governor at this table.”
Chaffetz, R-Utah, declined to invite Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to testify, despite requests from several committee members, according to Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. Those members have written to the chairman demanding he invite Republican Snyder to testify at a second hearing, he said.
Snyder, in his 2016 State of the State address, apologized for the state’s role in the drinking water fiasco.
Former emergency manager Darnell Earley, who was appointed by Snyder in 2013, declined to testify and ignored a subpoena demanding his appearance. Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican, claimed that Earley’s lawyer called the subpoena “nonsensical.”
To thunderous applause, Chaffetz announced that he has directed the U.S. marshals to server Earley with a subpoena, and if necessary bring him to Capitol Hill.
Several members of the panel appeared outraged at what they called an avoidable, man-made disaster. Rep. Cummings, the ranking Democratic member, grew frustrated with witness Keith Creagh, the new director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.
“Why are the people of Flint still paying for water that they cannot even use? That’s a fortune to them,” Cummings shouted, inspiring yells of support from Flint residents in the audience. “That’s not American!”