WASHINGTON — Former city and federal officials at a congressional hearing Tuesday pointed fingers at one another for failing to protect the 100,000 citizens of Flint from lead-laced water as Republicans targeted blame at an Environmental Protection Agency executive who resigned as the crisis worsened.
Amid withering criticism, Susan Hedman sought to defend the EPA's actions dealing with the contamination in the predominantly African-American city. "I don't think anyone at EPA did anything wrong, but I do believe we could have done more," said Hedman, the former director of the EPA's Midwest regional office.
Hedman stepped down Feb. 1 over what she called "false allegations" that portrayed her as sitting on the sidelines during the crisis and that she "downplayed concerns raised by an EPA scientist about lead in the water." Hedman denied the EPA had disciplined the scientist, Miguel Del Toral, who had warned of dangerously high levels of lead in a June 2015 memo and later criticized the agency for not taking swift action.
"You screwed up and you ruined people's lives," Chaffetz told Hedman. "This is where you’re fundamentally and totally wrong. You still don’t get it, and neither does the EPA administration."
Flint switched its water source from Detroit's water system to the Flint River in 2014 to save money. But the river water was not treated properly, and lead from aging pipes leached into water supplied to Flint homes and businesses. Elevated levels of lead have been found in the blood of local children. Lead contamination has been linked to learning disabilities and other problems.
The chain of events spurred calls for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to resign amid outrage over the water crisis. A long shoteffort is underway in Michigan to recall Snyder, who has been blamed in Michigan and nationally for the crisis.
The governor is scheduled to appear before the committee on Thursday, along with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who helped expose the lead problem in Flint's water and is now assisting both the city and state, accused Hedman and the EPA of "willful blindness" and for being unrepentant in the aftermath of the crisis.
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said he agreed the EPA could have done more. But Cummings said state authorities in Michigan also failed to act.
The committee released several internal EPA emails, including a Sept. 22 message from Del Toral to his supervisors that outlined his frustration with what he called the agency's "denial and delay" approach in Flint.
"At every stage of this process, it seems that we spend more time trying to maintain state/local relationships than we do trying to protect the children," Del Toral wrote.
Hedman told the committee that she first learned that Flint was not implementing corrosion control treatment in late June 2015, about 14 months after the city started using Flint River water that was not treated with orthophosphate, a chemical used for corrosion control.
Hedman choked up at one point when she said that although she has left government service she has not stopped thinking about the people of Flint.
The EPA responded within the "cooperative federalism framework" of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which assigns to the states the legal authority to implement drinking water regulations, Hedman testified. She said the EPA's enforcement options under the law are more constrained than in other federal environmental statutes.
Darnell Earley, the state-appointed emergency manager who oversaw the city when its water source was switched to the Flint River said he was "grossly misled" by state and federal experts who never told him that lead was leaching into the city's water supply. Earley said that he was overwhelmed by challenges facing the impoverished city and relied on experts from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA to advise him.
Earley told the committee that he and other Flint leaders "were all totally dependent" on analysis and expertise provided by state and federal officials. For months after the April 2014 switch, he believed information he was receiving — parts of it scientifically complex — was accurate, Earley told the committee.
But Earley said in hindsight he should have done more to challenge the experts who told him Flint's water problems were harmless to human health and geographically limited in nature.
Grilled by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, Earley was asked repeatedly whether his emergency manager role entailed questioning decisions made prior to his tenure. “Isn’t it your job to think about unintended consequences?" Amash asked.
Trying to deflect blame, Earley responded that he was trying to draw a distinction between responsibility and blame.
Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling blamed the crisis on the state of Michigan's focus on balancing the city's books and "choosing low cost over human consequences."
Walling also faulted the state's emergency manager law, which placed Flint effectively under state control since November 2011. The law "takes away the natural checks and balances" of democratic government and "minimizes the voices of the citizens by placing control so far away from the community," Walling said.
The five emergency managers who have run Flint were all appointed by and reported to the Republican governor, Walling said, as did the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Earley took over as emergency manager in Flint in October 2013, seven months after the Flint City Council approved the water switch and former emergency manager Edward Kurtz signed it.
Dozens of Flint residents who made the trip to witness the hearings left feeling less than amused.
“This is like a musical chair of responsibility, and the last one stuck in a chair when the music stops playing is going to be it," Laura MacIntyre told FOX 17. "It’s not acceptable.”
“They’re covering their butts," Nakiya Wakes said. "It’s all about the money. It’s money over lives, and that’s ridiculous.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report