Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Lawmakers Spar on State's Blame for Flint Water
Melissa Nann Burke and Jim Lynch
The Detroit News 1:36 p.m. EST February 3, 2016
Photo of Keith Creagh, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

Washington — Congressional lawmakers pressed state and federal officials Wednesday on the government’s handling of the lead contamination of drinking water in Flint and how officials dismissed accepted guidance and ignored test results for months as city residents continued to consume lead-tainted water.

But those officials that members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform most wanted to interview – the government officials involved in oversight of the city’s problems – were not there.

One of those was former Flint Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz, appointed to run the city by Gov. Rick Snyder during the period when Flint joined the new regional Karegnondi Water Authority in 2013. Democrats and one Republican lawmaker heavily criticized Snyder’s use of the emergency manager law, which is applied to municipalities that run consistent deficits and mass large amounts of debt..

During one exchange, Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, read a letter submitted by former Flint City Councilman Sheldon Neely, now a Democratic state representative. In that letter, Cummings put the fateful decision to use the Flint River as a water source until Karegnondi’s completion on the shoulders of Kurtz.

“It was Mr. Kurtz who made the decision to use the Flint River as the primary source of drinking water for the City of Flint,” Cummings said as he referenced the letter. The failure of state and city officials to add corrosion controls to the river water is believed to have resulted in the lead contamination issues the city faces.

Cummings, referencing the letter, said Kurtz went “behind closed doors with DEQ” officials to make the decision.

U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., called the failures of the emergency managers in Flint “the consequence of putting ideology ahead of human beings and their needs and welfare.”

At a Flint press conference, Snyder defended his policy of appointing emergency managers in cities with financial emergencies.

"There were people at the DEQ who followed too strictly, literally, following too technically the Lead and Copper rule for the state, which led to this terrible tragedy," the Republican governor said. "Emergency managers have been successful in a number of other places in Michigan. We’ve transitioned out of using an emergency manager in Flint. I don’t care to use emergency managers.”

Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, faced questions about delays in the federal agency’s response to Flint’s situation. Rep. Paul Gosar questioned why EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy made her first trip to Flint this week – many months after her agency became aware of the city’s problems.

“I find it despicable that Gina McCarthy, the administrator, shows up in Flint yesterday instead of going there immediately,” Gosar said.

Beauvais was also questioned on lengthy delays in EPA’s response to public document requests from Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards. Some of Edwards’s requests to the agency date back over a decade to lead issues in Washington D.C.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, questioned why EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy made her first trip to Flint on Tuesday – many months after her agency became aware of the city’s problems.

“I find it despicable that Gina McCarthy, the administrator, shows up in Flint yesterday instead of going there immediately,” Gosar said Wednesday.

Beauvais was also questioned on lengthy delays in EPA’s response to public document requests from Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards. Some of Edwards’ requests to the agency date back over a decade to lead issues in Washington D.C.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, questioned Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, about his agency's response to federal officials.

“With the law and your responsibility (at the state) what failed in enacting the law, and can you explain to me the response to EPA on February 26 (2015) advising the state of Michigan that there was lead and high levels of corrosion in Flint water?” Lawrence asked.

“It’s the question of the day, and that’s what many of the auditors and reviewers are looking at,” Creagh said.

Lawrence noted that the information went from the Environmental Protection Agency to the state, not the city of Flint.

“We all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it’s the city the state or the federal government,” Creagh said. “We all let the citizens of Flint down.”

The state DEQ director also said that, because of how unusual it is to go from a treated water source to an untreated source, “the rigor should have been more.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, asked why water utility owners and operators aren’t all following proper testing procedures and protocols for testing for lead in drinking water. Is it a “lack of clarity in federal regulations or lack of enforcement or both?” Walberg said.

Mark Edwards, a water quality expert with Virginia Tech University, said, “The only thing I can conclude is that they don’t care about children getting lead poisoning from drinking water.”

Pressed by Walberg, Edwards added, “You would have to ask them why they refuse to do their job.”

“Do you believe they’re violating the law?” Walberg asked.

“I believe that they’re not enforcing the law or enforcing their own policies,” Edwards said. “Had it not been for people completely outside the system, those people in Flint would still be drinking this water to this day. That is a fact.”

Lawrence asked Creagh whether anyone been held accountable at the Department of Environmental Quality.

“Yes, there’s accountability throughout the system. As you know, there’s been some changes at the DEQ. There’s been suspensions at the DEQ. Everyone deserves due process,” Creagh replied.

“You’re obviously holding some people accountable -- then you should know what happened, to move from being a question to actually documenting this. How do you discipline someone or hold them accountable, if you do not have clear information about failure of their job?” Lawrence said.

“We do have clear standards. We do have clear accountability, so we have a clear path forward. We are working in conjunction with both the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Creagh said.

At the hearing, Chairman Jason Chaffetz said his committee will issue a subpoena Wednesday to the former Midwest regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency to testify about her agency’s response to the lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water.

Susan Hedman resigned her position effective Feb. 1 stemming from the EPA’s handling Flint water crisis. Chaffez, R-Utah, said the EPA has promised to provide Hedman’s emails to the committee by the end of the week.

Chaffetz also said the committee has directed U.S. marshals to “hunt down” former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley to serve him his subpoena.

Chaffetz had harsh words for Earley – particularly his refusal to appear in D.C. Wednesday. An attorney for Earley allegedly refused service of a subpoena earlier this week.

“We’re calling on the U.S. Marshals to hunt him down and serve him that subpoena,” Chaffetz said.

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, said it was "outrageous" that a situation like Flint's could happen in the United States, adding that he agrees with his Democratic colleagues that an independent, nonpartisan investigation is needed.

“It’s disappointing that former Emergency Manager (Darnell) Earley has his attorney tell us, when he received a subpoena for his appearance here, that it borders on nonsensical to accept that subpoena to come here,” Amash  said.

“What’s nonsensical, what’s disappointing is that one of the people who is probably most culpable in this situation won’t take responsibility for it. I think he needs to appear here.”

Virginia Tech’s Edwards, whose sampling work identified dangerous levels of lead in Flint's drinking water, asked the committee to "fix" the EPA.

“The agencies paid to protect us from lead in drinking water can get away with anything,” he said. “I am begging you … to fix the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule and to fix the U.S. EPA.”

Onlookers began lining up outside the hearing room inside the Rayburn House Office Building a little after 7 a.m. The crowd included two busloads of residents from Flint and two busloads from Detroit, said Erik Shelley of Michigan United. Several advocacy groups were planning a vigil for later in the morning on Capitol Hill.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee testified Wednesday morning, saying, "The governor should write a check right now for the $60 million the Mayor of Flint has asked for to replace the lead service lines. ..."

“This is a public relations campaign (by the state) right now,” Kildee told reporters after testifying.

“It goes beyond partisanship. This seems to me to be individuals who are just trying to protect their reputations, and are more concerned about that than they are about kids in Flint.”

Barbara Carr of Flint said she made the trip because she’s fed up with the water flowing from her taps.

“It’s unfair, and someone needs to be held accountable,” she said. “You can smell it. The river water smells horrible. Water should not smell like that. I want to tell my story about what I saw.”

Michigan’s top environmental official is offering strong criticism of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its handling of the Flint water crisis over the past two years.

Creagh submitted written testimony ahead of a congressional hearing Wednesday on the long-running problems in Flint with its drinking water. In the statement, obtained by The Detroit News, Creagh starts with an apology to the city’s residents but soon shifts into his comments on the EPA.

“From the time of the switch to the Flint River as the primary water source in 2014 until ... January 21, 2016 ... my observation is that the EPA did not display the sense of urgency that the situation demanded,” Creagh wrote in his testimony.

“This is underscored by the conversations started in February 2015 regarding implementation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule. Between February and the end of September 2015, there were multiple email exchanges and conference calls between the MDEQ and EPA. 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.”

Creagh also references a well-publicized in-house EPA memo, prepared in June 2015, by agency water expert Miguel Del Toral. That memo laid out the public health dangers that were likely in play due to the state’s failure to require corrosion controls in water drawn from the Flint River. EPA officials have been criticized for seemingly downplaying the memo and failing to alert the public to its ramifications regarding potential lead contamination in the drinking water supply.

An email highlighted in Creagh’s testimony shows one EPA employee giving DEQ officials advice on how to deny having seen the Del Toral memo, after the state had acquired it through a third party.

“I wanted to remind you that Miguel’s report had DEQ cc’d,” wrote the EPA official. “So if the Legislature or who ever (sic) might say you all were cc’d, you can truthfully respond that it was EPA’s request that the report not be sent to the cc’s. Consequently, you all never received the report from Miguel.”

Creagh did not, however, spare the state in its handling of Flint’s water crisis — primarily its interpretation of the Lead and Copper Rule. In January, Creagh told The Detroit News that results from a six-month round of water sampling, which began after the city began drawing water from the Flint River in April 2014, should have led to immediate action at the start of the following year.

“When the first round of lead sampling came back (above acceptable levels) in January 2015, corrosion treatment was not implemented,” he wrote. “Regardless of the testing schedule allowed by the EPA rule, in hindsight, when the lead levels began to rise, corrosion treatment should have been required by the MDEQ.”

DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance has been singled out for problematic decisions relating to the Lead and Copper Rule’s implementation. Creagh’s stated the office “relied on technical compliance instead of assuring safe drinking water.”

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher whose testing work helped identify high levels of lead in Flint’s water, also submitted testimony. In his testimony, the civil engineering professor stated Flint’s crisis occurred because of “institutional scientific misconduct perpetrated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, primacy agencies and water utilities.”

“The very agencies paid to protect us not only failed to do so, but also revealed their callous indifference to the plight of our most vulnerable,” he stated. He added the events in Flint were inevitable due to a “lack of scientific integrity” and a lack of adequate checks and balances at the “highest levels” of the federal science and health agencies.

Additional testimony submitted ahead of Wednesday’s hearing came from Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water. In his statement, Beauvais said what happened in Flint “was avoidable and should have never happened.”

He noted that EPA staff had urged state environmental officials to address the lack of corrosion control in the Flint River water “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,” Beauvais said.

“It is imperative that Michigan, other states, EPA and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide work together and take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”

Beauvais also highlights the actions the EPA has taken in response to Flint, including issuing a new agency-wide policy directing leadership to encourage “prompt and decisive action” to address public health concerns.

He also says that, in addition to EPA experts providing ongoing technical assistance in Flint, the agency has launched an effort to collect and analyze drinking water samples to help ensure transparency and accountability in assessing the ongoing status of the city’s water supply.

LeeAnne Walters, who lives in Flint half time, told the committee about getting her water tested because of discoloration and health issues suffered by her family. Her complaints to the city and state “were dismissed,” she said.

“My home used to be a place of comfort and safety for my family,” Walters said.

“Now, my home is known as ground zero. The people of Flint, notwithstanding the people of D.C. who suffered their own lead water crisis a decade ago, because we now know the horror of poison running through our taps, and the negligence of agencies paid to protect us.”

Walters said she began talking to water quality expert Miguel Del Toral and Jennifer Brooks at the EPA’s Midwest Region 5 after her complaints were dismissed by the city and state.

Walters said Del Toral was the “only one willing to address the problem.” Walters requested a copy of his June 2015 internal memo on Flint’s water and made it public “because people had a right to know,” she said.

“Mr. Del Toro was told by the (EPA) ethics attorney to forward all media requests, including those during his personal time,” Walters said. “He was also advised not to talk about Flint or to anyone from Flint.”

Freelance writer Jacob Carah contributed.

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