Health Politics

House Oversight Committee Holds Hearings on Flint Water Crisis

As the aid package to help Flint residents is stalled in Congress, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held hearings this week to investigate what actions—or inaction—led to the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan that produced a spike in lead poisoning and other health issues.

Tuesday’s hearing included Darnell Earley, the emergency manager appointed by Governor Rick Snyder, who switched the city’s water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to a local river in order to save money; Dayne Walling, Flint’s mayor at the time of the water source switch; Susan Hedman, the former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator covering Flint; and Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor whose research and water testing revealed the magnitude of the problems in the city.

Earley—who has received much of the blame for the decision to switch Flint’s water source—claimed that he has been “unjustly persecuted, vilified, and smeared – both personally and professionally” in this matter. Earley, who had to be subpoenaed to testify, continued, “It was not my decision to use the Flint River when the switch was made in April 2014.” This stands in contrast to Walling’s testimony that neither he nor the city council had any power to make a decision of that degree under the state’s emergency management system.

Hedman, who resigned over the handling of the crisis in February, stated, “I don’t believe anyone at the EPA did anything wrong, but I do believe we could have done more.” Edwards sharply countered Hedman’s testimony, saying that she and the EPA had acted with “willful blindness … to the pain and suffering of Flint residents, unremorseful for their role in causing this manmade disaster and completely unrepentant and unable to learn from their mistakes.”

Testimony continued yesterday when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy both appeared in front of the Committee. Snyder’s testimony passed much of the blame onto the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ)—a state office under his purview—and the federal EPA, but he rejected the notion that he was negligent in his handling of the water crisis. Snyder has repeatedly downplayed concerns about the water, despite being informed about abnormally high lead poisoning rates in Flint’s children. While Democrats on the committee repeatedly called for his resignation, Snyder pushed the blame onto the federal government and McCarthy—whom Republicans would later call to resign.

McCarthy pushed back on the idea that her agency was at fault. “The system failed. We were part of that system… I will take responsibility for not pushing hard enough, but I will not take responsibility for causing this problem. It was not EPA at the helm when this happened,” said McCarthy. “We were strong armed, we were misled, we were kept at arm’s length, we couldn’t do our jobs effectively. We did not create this problem.”

At the end of the hearings, many were still left with lingering questions and concerns. For Flint’s residents – 40 percent of whom live in poverty – still struggling with contaminated water and medical issues stemming from the contamination, the hearings did little to resolve anything.

“To me it just sounded like a lot of people protecting themselves and their own interests — a lot of finger pointing, a lot of blame, but not a lot of concern for the residents of Flint. This is more than someone’s career, because there are lives that are stake, and that’s what didn’t get across today,” said Flint resident Desiree Duell. “When it comes down to it, if you are truly, genuinely trying to help the people of Flint, it’s time to come super clean, be super transparent and accountable to your actions, and that just didn’t happen.”

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