By Todd Spangler
A congressional committee investigating the Flint water crisis today issued letters finding repeated failures in which state environmental officials "remained indifferent" about the danger of lead levels in the city's water and federal regulators "ignored multiple demands" to intervene.
Nearly a year after President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration over potentially dangerous high lead levels in Flint's water, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent letters reporting their findings to other congressional committees, recommending updates to federal rules and lead monitoring, as well as calling for a close look at how environmental regulators set priorities and spend money.
"The committee found significant problems at Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality and unacceptable delays in the Environmental Protection Agency's response to the crisis. The committee also found that the federal regulatory framework is so outdated that it sets up states to fail," wrote Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
The letters -- which appeared to conclude the committee's investigation -- came as Obama signed into law a sweeping water infrastructure act that includes no less than $120 million for Flint, which is expected to use much of that money to tear up and replace lead water pipes and fixtures. Millions more will go to lead poisoning registries and efforts to track and improve the health of those impacted.
Chaffetz's committee held a series of hearings into the long-developing crisis, which saw lead levels skyrocket after Flint -- under the control of an emergency financial manager appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder -- changed water supplies to the Flint River in 2014. Snyder testified before the committee earlier this year as did EPA chief Gina McCarthy, who laid blame for the crisis solely on the state.
State regulators failed to order the required corrosion controls, which allowed lead to leach from miles of old water pipes into residents' taps, resulting in reports showing children in Flint with elevated blood lead levels. But the EPA took months to require the state to do corrosion control and acknowledged that its rules were confusing. Early this year, EPA effectively took over the response in Flint.
The agency did not comment on the committee's findings despite a request from the Free Press.
While Democrats concentrated much of their blame on Snyder -- wanting to know why the state didn't act more quickly and precisely when he was informed about the problems in Flint -- -- the committee's letters to chairmen of the House Appropriations and House Energy and Commerce committees did not single him out for blame. Chaffetz wrote that it was "administrative mismanagement" in the struggling city that "forced (the state) to intervene in the city's affairs in an effort to save it."
"Governor Snyder appreciates the committee's work and for referring recommendations for policy changes to the appropriate committees," a spokeswoman, Anna Heaton, told the Free Press. "He is a strong proponent of revising the federal Lead and Copper Rule and has been working with Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech (a water quality expert who warned of the problems in Flint) to see those reforms through the legislative process."
In another correspondence today, the Oversight Committee's top-ranking Democrat, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., urged Chaffetz to issue a subpoena to compel Snyder to produce documents related to the crisis that he says have been withheld throughout the investigation.
Snyder, Cummings wrote, "has refused to provide -- or even search for -- key documents. As a result, the committee is still unable to answer critical questions about what the governor knew about the crisis as it unfolded, why he did not act on concerns about water quality, even while his inner circle sounded repeated alarms, and why families in Flint continue to subsist on bottled water almost a year after he declared an emergency."
Chaffetz's office didn't immediately respond. Heaton said the governor "has provided the committee with hundreds of thousands of pages of documents at its request" and that its understanding is that the committee's investigation is now closed, though that wasn't immediately confirmed. It also wasn't clear whether the committee intends to issue a formal report.
The committee did call for action, however. In a letter to House Appropriation Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., Chaffetz argued that appropriators should take into consideration long overdue changes to the federal Lead and Copper Rule and EPA's own $384-billion estimate of needed water infrastructure demands across the U.S. before signing off on requests involving climate change concerns.
In a letter to House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph -- who will step down as committee chair in a few weeks -- Chaffetz said an inspector general should be asked to look into why the Lead and Copper Rule hasn't been updated "to prevent other Flints from happening" and whether ambiguities in the Safe Drinking Water Act need to be addressed.
Even though an EPA manager in Chicago, Miguel Del Toral, figured out early that Flint might not using be corrosion controls, MDEQ officials dismissed him as a rogue employee, with a spokesman for the state agency saying as late as mid-2015 that "anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax."
EPA officials other than Del Toral were also roundly criticized, however, with Chaffetz saying they were expected to serve as a federal "backstop" in case states didn't do their job. He said it was "nine months after Del Toral requested EPA intervene ... and at least four months after Administrator McCarthy became involved" before the EPA finally issued an emergency order regarding Flint.
Chaffetz said the Flint crisis should be a warning call to the dangers that may be lurking all over the country that must be addressed.
While lead levels in Flint have dropped since the height of the crisis, public health officials are still urging people to drink filtered or bottled water to ward against potential spikes in the lead levels. Meanwhile, the state is fighting a court order to continue delivering bottled water to the city, saying it's unnecessary and too expensive, and legal investigations into how the crisis developed remain ongoing, having resulted in at least 35 charges against nine people and two companies.
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press