Ex-Flint manager says he relied on ‘failed’ experts in water crisis

Posted at 8:04 AM, Mar 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-15 17:43:39-04

WASHINGTON — Former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, who oversaw the city when its water source switched to the Flint River, says he relied on state and federal experts, but the experts failed him and the city of some 100,000 people.

In prepared testimony for the first of two congressional hearings, Earley says he was overwhelmed by challenges facing the impoverished city and relied on experts from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to advise him.

Earley, who served as Flint emergency manager from September 2013 through January 2015, says that for months after the April 2014 switch he believed information he was receiving — some of it scientifically complex — was accurate.

“These unthinkable errors all underscore that Flint’s crisis resulted from improper treatment of the water, an issue which fell squarely in the bailiwick of MDEQ and EPA,” he wrote. “We relied on the experts to verify that the water would not pose any threat to the community — the experts failed all of us.”

>> Tuesday’s hearing will be live streamed here.

But he says 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.

“In relying on experts, the solutions I oversaw failed to ameliorate the troubles plaguing Flint’s water,” Earley says in prepared testimony for a hearing Tuesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

FOX 17 obtained a copy of Earley’s testimony in advance.

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 Flint homes and businesses. Elevated levels of lead have been found in some children’s blood, with lead contamination linked to learning disabilities and other problems.

The chain of events has fueled calls for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to resign amid outrage over the treatment of the people of Flint, a predominantly African-American city. A recall effort is under way in Michigan for Snyder, who has been widely blamed for the crisis.

The governor is scheduled to appear before the committee on Thursday, along with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Snyder told FOX 17 on Monday he’s anticipating a challenging day of questioning Thursday,  but is hoping to have “reasonable” dialogue with committee members.

“I want to fix it,” he told reporters. “There was failure at all levels of government: local, state and federal. You just don’t walk away from that, you say ‘here’s way to solve those problems, here’s ways to learn from those experiences and go fix it.’”

Problems with the Flint River water became apparent soon after the switch was made, Earley says. In August 2014, tests indicated the presence of fecal matter and other contaminants. Under state guidance, the city issued an advisory telling city residents to boil their water before using it.

But Earley says he was not overly concerned, since he was “advised by these experts” that the contaminants were “generally harmless” and could be eradicated by adding chlorine and fresh water to the system, which the city did.

Earley, a longtime school administrator and municipal official who previously served as city manager in Saginaw, Michigan, 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.

Earley said he was given a variety of explanations for the coliform bacteria in the city’s water. Explanations ranged from low-water pressure to an unauthorized connection to a sampling error, he said.

“I could only understand these reports in conjunction with the scientific interpretations” provided by state environmental officials and water treatment staff, he said.

“At absolutely no time during these boil-water advisories were the issues of corrosion control or lead leaching brought to my attention,” Earley said.

Earley’s testimony comes as the House oversight panel holds two hearings this week on the Flint crisis. Besides Earley, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and Susan Hedman, the former head of the EPA’s Midwest regional office, are set to testify. Hedman resigned Feb. 1 as the Flint crisis worsened.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the oversight panel, visited Flint over the weekend with other lawmakers.

“What happened in Flint cannot ever happen again,” Chaffetz said in an opening statement prepared for Tuesday’s hearing. “The people of Flint were being poisoned in their own homes by the water they used every day for drinking and bathing.”

“It is almost unbelievable how many bad decisions were made” in Flint, at all levels of government, Chaffetz said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.