Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Congressional Panel Takes on Flint Water Crisis
Todd Spangler and Maureen Groppe
Detroit Free Press and USA Today
9:55 a.m. EST February 3, 2016

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. House Oversight Committee on Wednesday expressed deep disappointment at government failures at the local, state and federal levels which led to high lead levels in tap water in Flint as he opened the first hearing into the water crisis there.

"This is a failing at every level," said U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, as the hearing began with a room full of people from Detroit and Flint there to hear the first congressional testimony to be delivered on the widening public health crisis "The public has a right to be outraged. Outrage doesn't even begin to cover it."

"We can’t let this happen. It never should have happened in the first place," said Chaffetz, adding that he couldn't imagine how he would feel if his children were exposed to the high lead levels detected in Flint, which were apparently caused by not adding corrosion controls to water there when it switched sources in 2014.

The first congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis opened at 9 a.m., to look into the events leading up to the EPA issuing an emergency order in late January after President Barack Obama signed a declaration that an emergency existed in Flint. High lead levels have been detected not only in tap water but also in blood-lead levels in children. High levels of lead can cause multiple long-term problems for children, including development delays, learning difficulties, irritability, weight loss and hearing loss.

However, there remain deep, dueling disagreements between federal and state regulators over their share of the blame for the events that led to the high lead levels found in many residents' tap water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's emergency order last month took over water sampling, accusing the state of Michigan of delays and a lack of transparency.

But the state Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) — which has taken the brunt of the blame for not requiring Flint to have corrosion control which could have kept lead from leaching from old service pipes — has pointed a finger of blame back at EPA as well, saying the agency kept the state waiting months for a legal opinion about whether such corrosion control was required.

"Between February (2015) and the end of September 2015, there were multiple e-mail exchanges and conference calls between MDEQ and EPA," new DEQ head Keith Creagh wrote in prepared testimony. "Yet when the parties were unable to come to consensus on its implementation in July 2015, the EPA failed to provide the legal opinion requested by the MDEQ until November 2015."

Concerns have also been raised by critics of the EPA that the agency should have moved far more quickly considering that officials in its Region 5 office in Chicago had heard reports of high lead levels in at least one resident's tap water as long ago as last February.

DEQ chief: EPA dragged feet in Flint crisis for months

EPA, however, has left no doubts, especially in the last month, where it believes most of the blame lies, especially with the state having primary responsibility for overseeing drinking water under federal statute. In his prepared testimony for the committee, Joel Beauvais, a deputy assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Water, reiterated the agency's view that rules required the city to have corrosion control when it changed its water source to the Flint River in 2014 — not after conducting testing for a year or more.

"MDEQ incorrectly advised the city of Flint that corrosion control treatment was not necessary, resulting in leaching of lead into the city's drinking water," Beauvais said in his statement. "EPA regional staff urged MDEQ to address the lack of corrosion control, but was met with resistance. The delays in implementing the actions needed to treat the drinking water and in informing the public of ongoing health risks raise very serious concerns."

The Oversight Committee was looking both att how events unfolded in Flint and EPA's role and whether it appropriately met its responsibilities under federal law. Creagh, Beauvais, Virginia Tech University professor Marc Edwards and a Flint resident, LeeAnne Walters, were to testify, as well as U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township.

The committee also subpoenaed Flint's former emergency manager, Darnell Earley, to testify at the hearing but he and his lawyer refused service, saying he wasn't given enough time to prepare. In his remarks, Chaffetz said he would not only call on U.S. Marshals to "hunt down and find" Earley to serve a subpoena to be deposed later but would also issue one to former EPA Region 5 head Susan Hedman, who resigned amid the crisis.

"The Flint water crisis is ... a human disaster brought on by the failures of humans as well as brought on by failures of government at all levels," said U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, a member of the committee. "I wouldn’t’ want my kids or my grandkids to have to drink this type of water. ... It's not the kind of thing we should think of (happening) in America.”

Democrats in Michigan and on the committee had urged Chaffetz to invite Gov. Rick Snyder to explain his administration's missteps, but the committee declined to do so. U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's ranking Democrat, said he and other Democrats  on the committee were signing a letter to insist that Snyder, Earley and other emergency managers in Flint, who played a role in Flint's water switch, to be called before the committee to testify.

“We are missing the most critical witness of all,” Cummings said, “the governor of the state of Michigan.”

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said she never thought this situation could happen in America, or in Michigan, “where we’re surrounded by fresh water and Great Lakes.”

“We can fix this,” she said, “but we have to have those who made the decisions come forward and give answers.”

Kildee, in his testimony before the committee, said the state has a "moral" responsibility to fix the city's damaged infrastructure, which could cost hundreds of millions dollars, if not more than a billion. He said efforts to shift blame to the EPA are an unwarranted distraction from what was mostly a decision ultimately made by Snyder's appointees.

“I’m critical of the EPA in this case, don’t get me wrong," said Kildee. "I wish as soon as the EPA found there was problem with the water in Flint they had shouted it from the mountaintop. Instead they insisted the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality do its job."

"They (EPA) were told it (corrosion control) was under control when it was not," he added.

A group of Flint residents had traveled to the nation's capital to watch the hearing; so many people were expected the committee arranged for an overflow room where those who could not get into the main hearing room could watch the proceedings

“A great injustice has been done to the people of Flint,” Flint resident Bishop Bernadel Jefferson said in a statement Tuesday. “Thousands of people were knowingly poisoned for months. We are making the trip from Flint to Washington, D.C., to show members of Congress that we’re serious about making sure that the people responsible for this manmade disaster are held accountable.”

Rev. Gerald Cardwell, pastor of Quinn Chapel in Flint and Pastor Ira G. Edwards Sr., of Damascus Holy Life Baptist Church in Flint both flew to Washington for the hearing, saying they were disappointed Snyder was not testifying but believing the needed to be here.

“He represents the people of Michigan and he needs to be here to address this issue,” Cardwell said. “He should own up to his responsibility and stand up before this committee.”

“Unless he’s afraid,” Edwards said.

Edwards added that his top priority is getting funding to replace the lead pipes in Flint.

“This is nothing political. This is about lives,” he said. “We want to get those pipes replaced.”

Thelma Odom, 76, of Detroit, got on a bus Thursday night along with fellow members of the King Solomon Baptist Church to attend the hearing.

“It’s important because people are suffering,” Odom said. “I want to know who knew (there was a problem) and how long did they know,” she said.

Contact Todd Spangler at 703-854-8947 or at Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler.

No comments: