Wednesday, February 03, 2016

As Grilling Over Flint Water Begins, Partisan Worry Lingers on Fringe
New York Times
FEB. 3, 2016

WASHINGTON — As Democrats pressure Congress to respond to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., Republicans will haul state and federal officials before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Wednesday morning for a rare bipartisan grilling over the breakdown in public health.

“I want to know what happened, and more important I want to know what they are doing to fix it,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah and chairman of the committee. “This was a failure of epic proportions.”

The hearing is one of several Mr. Chaffetz has convened at Democrats’ request, but many of them are angry that the committee did not invite Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, to testify. They also fear a dearth of new information because some of the other government officials who were high in the chain of command as the crisis escalated have since resigned and were not called to testify.

Witnesses will be asked about the decision to temporarily use the Flint River as the city’s water source while waiting for a new pipeline to Lake Huron to be finished, as well as the failure to add chemicals to the river water that would have kept old city pipes from corroding and leaching lead. Among those expected to testify are Keith Creagh, the director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, and Joel Beauvais, the official in charge of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water.

Democrats on the oversight committee, joined by Mr. Chaffetz, also sought the testimony of Darnell Earley, the former emergency manager in Flint, a Snyder appointee who approved the switch to water from the Flint River to save money. The committee issued Mr. Earley a subpoena late Tuesday, according to a member of its staff. But his lawyer, A. Scott Bolden, said in an email Tuesday night that Mr. Earley would be unable to appear before the committee.

“No matter who is responsible,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, “the people of Flint deserve a comprehensive investigation that gets them answers, not a partisan effort to protect the governor and others who brought about this crisis.”

A late addition to the witness list was LeeAnne Walters, a mother of four whose tap water was found to have extremely high lead levels starting early in 2015. “This is one part of getting to the complete picture,” Mr. Chaffetz said. “This is going to be a good, productive hearing.”

For its part, Mr. Snyder’s office announced on Tuesday that Mr. Earley would resign from his current job as the emergency manager for the Detroit school system at the end of the month.

Senate Democrats said last week that they would seek $600 million in federal aid to help Michigan clean up the contaminated water. They are trying to attach their request as an amendment to a sweeping energy bill now on the Senate floor. Noting that several Republicans have requested federal funding for disaster relief in their home states in other circumstances, Democrats have hinted that they could filibuster that bill if their Flint package is not approved.

Timeline of the critical moments leading to the public health emergency.

Republicans reject the comparison, noting that the crisis in Flint is a man-made one. “I think it’s worth recognizing that, already, the state of Michigan has provided $40 million to Flint, and President Obama has made $80 million additional available through the E.P.A. to help the state of Michigan if the state so chooses,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2-ranking Republican.

He added, “I think it would be a mistake, and I’m speaking for myself personally, to authorize a billion-dollar earmark just because the Democrats may want to be playing politics with this at the expense of the people in Flint, who we are all interested in helping.”

Miguel Del Toral, an Environmental Protection Agency employee who tried unsuccessfully to raise concerns about Flint’s water after seeing Ms. Walters’s test results early last year, was also called to testify.

But a spokeswoman for the agency, Monica Lee, said Mr. Del Toral would not be appearing before the committee.

Officials at the agency have said that they pressed Michigan regulators to take more decisive action after Mr. Del Toral brought his concerns about Flint’s water to their attention. But it was not until last month that the agency issued an emergency order and assumed oversight of lead testing in Flint.

“The E.P.A. is a pretty consistent target of the Republicans here in Congress,” said Representative Dan Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, who was born and raised in Flint. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in this case, too. I would just really appeal to those committee members, and this is me speaking about my hometown, not make it a moment to either protect a governor in Michigan from accountability or to beat up on one of their favorite agencies to beat up on.”

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