Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Oversight Chair: Bad Decisions on Flint ‘Unbelievable’
Jonathan Oosting and Keith Laing
The Detroit News 1:41 p.m. EDT
March 15, 2016

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee started its Tuesday hearing by focusing blame on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Snyder administration.

Former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley downplayed his own role in the crisis, telling lawmakers the decision to use river water as an interim source was made before he took office even though the actual switch occurred under his watch.

“I believe I have been unjustly persecuted, vilified and smeared both personally and professionally,” Earley said.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, grilled Earley over his role as a state-appointed emergency manager, repeatedly asking him whether part of his job was to question decisions made prior to his tenure.

“I’m trying to draw a distinction between responsibility and blame,” Earley told Amash, deflecting blame but acknowledging responsibility among himself and other Flint officials.

Earley was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in October 2013, seven months after the Flint City council had voted in favor of a plan to move from the Detroit water system to a new regional pipeline. The resolution did not reference the Flint River as an interim source.

The decision to join the Karegnondi Water Authority was approved by then-Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz, who subsequently signed a June 2013 order to place the city’s treatment plant into operation using Flint River water as a primary drinking source until the new pipeline was online.

Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, who also testified on his handling of the water crisis, agreed with Earley that the decision to use the Flint River water was made by Kurtz, who he said adopted a two-year budget that included equipment anticipating the switch.

Earley said he and his staff addressed early concerns with fecal and total coliform, trihalomethanes and E. coli bacteria in Flint water. But concerns at that time did not include lead levels, he said, and lead never came up in water quality meetings with state officials.

“We were grossly misled by experts at MDEQ and EPA,” Earley told lawmakers. “While I don’t have any great pride in knowing that, I do think it’s important.”

The state environmental department has acknowledged it failed to ensure the city added corrosion control treatments to Flint River water, an apparent misinterpretation of the federal Lead Copper Rule. The harsh water damaged aging pipes and leeched lead into the system.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is accused of downplaying a June 2015 memo by its own expert, Miguel Del Toral, a charge that Region 5 Director Susan Hedman disputed in her own testimony.

Earley, in written testimony submitted to the committee, said the state environmental department missed an opportunity to review corrosion concerns when General Motors stopped using the river water in October 2014.

“We were told our chemicals were hurting car parts, but not hurting humans,” Earley told lawmakers during his appearance.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House committee, said he “nearly vomited” during Earley’s comments on GM.

Cummings also highlighted a September 2015 letter from former Snyder Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore, who accused Walling of trying to protect his own reputation by requesting $30 million for improvements to the city’s water system.

“It is sickening, all of it,” Cummings said.

The committee was expected to focus on how and why the crisis occurred, the government responses to it and what changes can be made to prevent something similar from happening again.

“There is no acceptable level of lead in any water,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in opening remarks. “What happened to Flint can never happen again. It’s almost unbelievable how many bad decisions were made.”

Also testifying were former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman and Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee said the Flint water crisis was a result of a focus on reducing government spending by Republican leaders in Michigan.

“Everything was viewed through a lens of cost savings, and public safety and health suffered as a results,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, citing a recent interview with former Flint Emergency Manager Gerald Ambrose.

Cummings deflected criticisms that Democrats in Congress are trying to protect EPA officials in the Obama administration as the expense of Synder’s GOP administration in Michigan.

“Everybody at fault must be held accountable,” he said. “I’m not trying to protect anybody except the people of Flint.”

Earley, the former Flint emergency manager who been blamed for signing off the decision to use the tainted water, said the decisions that sparked the Flint water crisis were made before he got there.

“The decision to purchase water from the new KWA upon termination of the existing 50-year contract with DWSD had been fully vetted and confirmed prior to my tenure as Emergency Manger in Flint,” in written testimony submitted to the Oversight Committee.

“Before I served as emergency manager, there was already overwhelming consensus that the Flint River would be used as an interim water source during construction of the new KWA plant,” Earley continued in his prepared remarks.

“I have read recently released correspondence from Gov. Snyder’s office further pointing to such a consensus, that the decision to use the Flint River was pushed locally by the City Council, Mayor Walling, city staff, and the state. Genesee County officials were also aware of this plan,” he added.

Under Earley’s oversight, the city officially switched from treated Lake Huron water to water from the Flint River, which ended up corroding aging service lines that leached lead into the water supply, however.

The Virginia Tech professor helped bring public attention to the Flint crisis after testing for lead at residential homes. Edwards now works with the city of Flint on water testing and lead pipe issues.

He said he was “expecting” a situation like the Flint water crisis because of lax federal and state oversight.

“Malfeasance at the U.S. EPA and the CDC from 2001-2016 has harmed children in cities all over the United States,” Edwards said in written testimony submitted to the panel.

“Incredibly, even as the National Guard walks Flint to install filters and distribute bottled water because of water lead dangers — Michigan and the U.S. EPA have insisted that Flint has always met standards of the EPA Lead and Copper Rule,” he continued. “That claim is technically correct, because the EPA has effectively condoned cheating on the LCR since at least 2006.”

Walling, the former Flint mayor, said state officials in Michigan have erroneously placed blame for the decision to switch Flint’s water supply to the tainted Flint River

“Contrary to the facts, Gov. Snyder’s office and former Emergency Manager Darnell Earley have stated and repeated blatantly false claims that I and the Flint City Council made the switch to the Flint River,” he said. “Darnell Earley was the City Manager in Saginaw in 2013 until later in October—he was not working in Flint when the initial switch, treatment design and budget were decided upon.”

Walling said recommendations he and other city leaders made during his tenure “were discounted by the emergency managers and Governor Snyder going back more than a year.

“The state’s focus on balancing the City’s books and choosing low cost over human consequences created more expensive public problems, as state and federal regulators did not fully address the issues along the way,” he said.

“The decision in June of 2013 to switch to the Flint River was contrary to the water plans and financial forecasts provided to me and the Flint City Council in March of 2013 when we were requested by the emergency financial manager to guide his decision on the long-term options for Flint’s water supply,” Walling added.

Flint residents packed the halls of the Congressional hearing room where Tuesday’s hearing was taking place.

Nakiya Wakes, who lives on Flint’s north side, flew with liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan to D.C. for the hearing. Her two children have tested positive for lead exposure, according to Wakes, and she blames the contaminated water on her July 2015 miscarriage.

“I’m here to get justice and to make sure our voices are heard,” said Wakes, who carried a series of water bills and pictures of her children, 7-year-old Jaylon and 16-year-old Nashauna.

“My son has had behavioral problems. He’s been suspended from school over 50 times. He’s in the first grade, doesn’t even want to attend school anymore,” she said.

Gov. Rick Snyder takes the hot seat Thursday, alongside Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy.


No comments: