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6 takeaways from the congressional hearings on the Flint water crisis

Feb 3, 2016

The House Oversight & Government Reform Committee chaired by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, held a hearing titled, "Examining Federal Administration of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint, Michigan."

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-MI, kicked things off in the first panel laying most of the blame for the crisis on the State of Michigan.

From his testimony:

“This is a tragedy. It cannot be fixed, but those who did this to Flint can stand up and make it right, and I would ask this committee to do everything within your power to find the facts, and if you do, and if you let those facts lead you to the conclusion that they should, we will find that the state of Michigan bears the responsibility to the greatest extent.”

The second panel included the EPA’s acting deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Water, the current Director of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech, and Lee Anne Walters, the former Flint resident who uncovered the lead problem in the city.

They took pointed, emotional questions from members of the committee, with most of the heat directed toward the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to prevent the Flint water crisis.

A couple of times during the question and answer period, the EPA’s Joel Beauvais was asked what the EPA should have done after the agency learned there was a problem in Flint in late-April of 2015.

Beauvais acknowledged that this is a key question, and agreed that the agency should have warned people in the city as soon as they found out.

Watch the heated exchange between the Committee Chair, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah and the EPA’s Joel Beauvais below:

In the exchange, Chaffetz asked Marc Edwards for his opinion on how the EPA handled the problem last spring and summer. Edwards responds that the EPA “was aiding and abetting and emboldening MDEQ’s cover-up of this problem.”

You can watch all the testimony here.

Here are six takeaways from today’s hearing:

1. The EPA blamed the state, the state blamed the EPA.

That’s generalizing, of course. Both agencies accepted some level of responsibility for the fiasco in Flint. But when push came to shove, the EPA's Beauvais said the state messed up:

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.

While the state's Creagh said the EPA’s rules don’t work:

… the implementation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule was ineffective in protecting public health.

2. Republicans on the committee focused their anger on the EPA, while Democrats on the committee zeroed in on Governor Snyder, the emergency manager Darnell Earley, and the MDEQ.

Again, there were plenty of regulatory breakdowns and cover-ups on the road to today’s crisis in Flint. And that was acknowledged in today’s hearings, but – as is often true in politics – which party you belong to indicates where you assign blame.

3. Congressmen yelled at the EPA to “fix” the lead and copper rule – the rule designed to prevent lead from getting into the water -- while Edwards said the EPA simply needs to “enforce the rule.”

Edwards reminded the committee that he’s testified before, back when Washington D.C. had elevated lead in its water. He said the government has failed to correct the problem. He’s written a white paper on how cities game the testing system to get around the regulation.

"All I want is for them to enforce the existing law." - Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech

“Their callous disregard for the most vulnerable amongst us has played out most recently in Flint, Michigan," said Edwards, referring to the kids in Flint who were exposed to elevated levels of lead.

“All I want is for them to enforce the existing law,” he said.

4. Were the right people there?

Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-PA, asked the MDEQ’s Keith Creagh about an earlier study that determined the the Flint River was not a viable long-term solution for the city. Creagh responded that he wasn’t aware of the study, noting that he just started the job in January. The EPA’s Beauvais also responded, at times, that he was not aware of certain events because he started in his current role in the fall.

The exchange prompted Cartwright to ask, “are we really interested in finding out what happened?” -- since the people with first-hand knowledge of the events were not before the committee.

The chairman promised to get Darnell Earley to testify. Earley has agreed to do so. No word on whether Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, or former MDEQ Director Dan Wyant will be called.

5. A clear answer on where the blame lies.

The ranking member on the committee, Elijah Cummings, D-MD, said toward the end of the hearings he could tell that Marc Edwards has felt hurt over the years by the fact that the EPA has not taken his warnings seriously. He asked Edwards to clarify where he felt the majority of the blame lies in all this.

Edwards had testified earlier that it was his view, informed by all the documents he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, that someone in the MDEQ  “forgot to follow the law” in allowing Flint to operate its water plant without corrosion control.

“But they ignored warning sign after warning sign,” and eventually engaged in a cover-up of the serious problem occurring in Flint. And once the EPA got involved, Edwards felt the EPA helped the MDEQ in their cover-up of the facts.

He put it plainly, saying MDEQ is mostly to blame for the Flint water crisis, but the “EPA had the chance to be the hero,” and failed.

6. Kids exposed to the lead in the water still suffering

Lee Anne Walters, the former Flint mother who unearthed the serious problems in Flint after she discovered her kids were exposed to high levels of lead, said her child is still suffering from the effects of lead exposure. She said her child has only gained three pounds in the last year, has speech issues, and has a compromised immune system.

She testified that it’s not just young kids who have been harmed. She says she knows of a 15-year-old in the city suffering from serious liver issues from lead exposure, and adults who are suffering as well.

Members of the committee repeatedly thanked Walters for her courage in bringing this issue to light.