'You Just Don't Get It': Republicans Grill EPA's McCarthy About Flint Water Crisis

Two days of Capitol Hill hearings about Flint, Michigan's contaminated water were dominated by partisan fingerpointing.
March 17, 2016, 7:15pm

The head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defended her agency's muted response to the Flint water crisis before an often-hostile House committee Thursday, while Michigan's governor said he got bad advice from "career bureaucrats" as the fiasco unfolded.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Gov. Rick Snyder pointed fingers in each other's direction during a joint appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the second hearing the panel has held on the Flint crisis this week. McCarthy told lawmakers that state environmental officials repeatedly misled the EPA about their efforts to address the contaminated water that led to high levels of lead contamination in Flint children.

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"I think there were dots we could have connected. I think we spent way to long trusting the state that they were doing the right thing," McCarthy said.

The panel's Republican majority focused largely on McCarthy, whose agency is a perennial GOP whipping boy. Democrats turned most of their attention on Snyder, a two-term Republican whose appointee approved switching the long-depressed city's water supply to the polluted Flint River to save money.

McCarthy said the EPA "begged" its Michigan counterpart to let it provide technical assistance to correct the problems in Flint after the agency learned that water from the river wasn't being properly treated. Those entreaties came "at the city level and the state level, with personal communications as well as professional." But she said the federal Safe Drinking Water Act doesn't give the EPA the authority to step in and take action on its own if a state says it's handling the problem itself.

"We were strong-armed. We were misled. We were kept at arm's length," she told the committee's Republican chairman, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz. "We couldn't do our jobs effectively."

"Wow," Chaffetz replied. "You just don't get it. You still don't get it."

But Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., replied, "I get it. We're trying to make sure that blame is shifted here."

'I guess being a government agency means you never have to say you're sorry.'

Snyder has repeatedly apologized for the disaster in Flint, which has left the city's 100,000 residents relying on bottled water and filters. His administration has secured $67 million to address the crisis and hopes to provide another $135 million. He's faced tough questions about what top aides told him about the crisis as it mounted in 2014 and 2015, and there have been numerous calls for his resignation.

He acknowledged Thursday that his use of an "emergency manager" to take over long-depressed Flint's city government was a failure "in this particular case." He faced new calls for his resignation from committee Democrats, but argued that "inefficient, ineffective, and unaccountable bureaucrats" at the EPA prolonged the crisis.

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An earlier hearing Tuesday similarly involved "everyone pointing fingers and no one taking responsibility," said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University's law school. Thursday promised to be "a tough sit" for McCarthy, "and I think it should be," she said.

One of McCarthy's top deputies, Susan Hedman — the regional administrator for the Great Lakes states — resigned in January over the Flint scandal. Hedman testified Tuesday that her resignation was "the honorable thing to do" after disclosures that the EPA knew about the problems in April 2015, six months before scientists documented high levels of lead in the blood of children in the city.

She told lawmakers the EPA did nothing wrong, but "could have done more" to address the problem. It was the state, not the EPA, that chose to use the heavily polluted Flint River as a source of drinking water without proper treatment, she said, and the EPA had to work through state officials to correct the problem.

But her account drew a blistering response from Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped expose the contamination problems in Flint. Edwards unloaded on the EPA with both barrels, telling lawmakers its "willful blindness" put children at risk of lead poisoning — "and incredibly, to this day, they have not apologized for what they did."

"I guess being a government agency means you never have to say you're sorry," said Edwards, who now works for the city of Flint, advising it on its efforts to end the problem.

Related: Flint Residents Paid the Highest Rates in the US for Their Lead-Contaminated Water

Though the EPA has long been a target of congressional Republicans, it has a lot of answer for in Flint, Loeb said.

"It was clear that people at US EPA had knowledge they needed to take action to protect people in Flint, and rather than doing so, they held meetings, they negotiated with state officials and did nothing to inform people," Loeb said. "That's the most shocking part of all. For months, they allowed the people of Flint to continue to drink and bathe in and wash their clothes in this water that they knew was dangerous."

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However, the problems began with state officials in Michigan, who skimped on the $80-100 a day it would have cost to properly treat the water — and waved away months of complaints from residents who brought jugs of "discolored and odorous" tap water to their offices.

"This was a very poor, minority city, and people were ignored," Loeb said. "So Michigan is where the fault starts — it just doesn't end there."

Darnell Earley, the Snyder appointee put in charge of Flint to balance its books, said he was "grossly misled" by the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality. Earley said he was "very deeply hurt by what has happened on my watch" — but he told the committee, "I believe that I have been unjustly persecuted, vilified and smeared, both personally and professionally," by other government officials and "a misinformed public."

But a state task force put the "primary responsibility" for the Flint fiasco on the state Department of Environmental Quality, whose director resigned in December as the problems began to draw national attention. And Loeb said Earley's account of being misled about the problems "has to be nonsense."

"Even if people were unaware of it early on, the complaints about the water started very soon after the switch happened. There was every reason to look into it and take action," she said.

Related: Some Newark, New Jersey Schools Needed New Lead Filters Years Ago, Photographs Show

In January, Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint. National Guard troops have been handing out bottled water and filters. The city has switched back to its original water source, Detroit's municipal system, until Flint can be connected to a new regional utility still under construction. The two-term Republican governor, who was elected on promises of tight-fisted conservative reform, has been put on the defensive, issuing numerous apologies and saying he's concentrating on solving the problem.

But critics say the former computer executive's emphasis on running government like a business was part of the problem that led to the Flint fiasco. And the revelation that top advisers questioned the wisdom of using Flint River water in early 2014 put him on the defensive once again.

"I would guess that as the committee did [Tuesday], after or during the hearing, they will release documents and e-mails that indicate the knowledge or certainly that there should have been knowledge among people much earlier than they're admitting to," she said.

But, she warned ahead of today's hearing, "If we just see Democrats going after the people from Michigan and the Republicans going after McCarthy, we're not going to see what needs to be accomplished."

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl