In Contentious Flint Hearing, Snyder and McCarthy Trade Blame

by | March 18, 2016

By Todd Spangler, Paul Egan and Keith Matheny

With Democratic members of Congress calling for his resignation, Gov. Rick Snyder lashed out Thursday at federal regulators for their response to the Flint water crisis, saying that despite the Environmental Protection Agency's insistence that the agency bore no direct responsibility there was evidence it could have moved far more quickly to protect the public.

Agitated at EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy's continued defense of her agency's handling of the high levels of lead found in Flint's drinking water, Snyder cited e-mails showing EPA was fully aware last summer that corrosion control wasn't being used in Flint. Even so, it continued to work with those he termed "career bureaucrats" at the Michigan Department of Environmental Protection -- who the EPA now says were lax -- rather than bringing the threat directly to his and the public's attention.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Chairman, you can only take so much," the normally placid Snyder said at the hearing on the Flint crisis before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee after McCarthy again indicated sole responsibility remained with the state. "When I read these things, I'm ready to get sick. We need urgency, and we needed action and they keep on talking. ... This could have been stopped sooner if other people could have also spoken up."

Snyder's remarks came during an often tense and contentious hearing that saw him and McCarthy -- the two topmost governmental officials linked to the Flint emergency -- testify for the first time, often challenging the others' statements. With the committee room packed with Flint residents, many wearing "Flint Lives Matter" T-shirts and hats, committee members on either side of the political aisle took turns calling for both Snyder's and the EPA chief's resignations.

Snyder again apologized for the state's handling of the drinking water crisis in Flint, saying the MDEQ was clearly wrong in not requiring corrosion control in April 2014 when the city switched to using the Flint River as its water supply, believing federal rules instead called for two six-month monitoring periods first. Because there was no corrosion control, lead  leached from old pipes throughout the city.

But while saying the state is correcting an MDEQ "culture that valued technical compliance over common sense," Snyder rejected McCarthy's repeated contention that the EPA and its Midwest Region 5 office in Chicago responded appropriately to the situation, noting that for months the EPA was aware that corrosion controls were not being used in Flint and did not alert anyone else to MDEQ's intransigence.

"I have a really simple question: Why didn't (former Region 5 head) Susan Hedman call (former MDEQ Director) Dan Wyant? Why didn't the administrator call me?" Snyder said after McCarthy said the EPA lacked the legal standing to take more aggressive action. "This is technical compliance again. ... Where is the common sense?"

McCarthy, in repeated responses to Republicans on the panel who called for her resignation, said the agency's hands were largely tied by federal law in what actions it could take to force the state to enact corrosion controls. But she also maintained that the MDEQ "slow-walked" any response to the crisis, refusing to move more quickly to implement corrosion control when the EPA urged it.

"If there was anything (else) I could have done, any switch I could have turned on that would have allowed us to go farther ... I would have pulled that switch," said McCarthy, who in January of this year finally issued an emergency order in response to Flint. "We were late in getting it done, yes. ... There was nothing else I could have ordered that would have made that move faster."

But e-mails obtained by the Free Press clearly indicate that while the MDEQ was mistaken in not requiring corrosion control in Flint upfront, some officials in the EPA's Chicago office knew about high lead levels in at least one home as early as last February. And while one EPA lead expert warned there could be widespread problems -- and raised warnings when MDEQ acknowledged there was no corrosion control in Flint last April -- McCarthy said there was not enough evidence of a "systemic" problem for her to act.

McCarthy also repeated Hedman's contention that the EPA repeatedly told MDEQ that it was required to have corrosion control, even though there is little evidence of that in thousands of e-mails reviewed by the Free Press; and the EPA did not provide one from anyone other than that one expert -- Miguel Del Toral -- when asked on Thursday.

Hedman was criticized for telling Flint's mayor, after Del Toral's draft report came out last June, that it still needed to be finalized, leading the mayor to suggest the water in the city, at that point, was still safe to drink.

"You need to take some responsibility because you screwed up," said the committee chairman, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, after earlier calling for McCarthy to "do the courageous thing" and resign.

"I hear calls for resignation; I think you should be at the top of the list," U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said to McCarthy. He added: "You can read Del Toral's report. It's incredibly accurate. This was dated in June. And not a damn thing was done, really, until January of this year."

McCarthy rejected any suggestion that the EPA was to blame for doing anything other than trusting the MDEQ and perhaps not pressuring it to talk to higher-up officials in Michigan sooner. But she said that it never occurred to her or other officials in the EPA that a state would need to be told that you couldn't substitute untreated water from a new source for previously treated water.

"From Day 1, the state provided our regional office with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information," she said, saying MDEQ refused to accept that corrosion control was needed.

And she maintained that MDEQ refused to play along, even after it accepted that corrosion control was required and the EPA offered technical assistance to determine the right amount of corrosion control for Flint, where more than 1,000 homes have now tested for lead levels above the action level of 15 parts per billion.

"We were strong-armed. We were misled. We were kept at arm's length. We could not do our jobs effectively," she said. When asked whether she would have fired Hedman -- who resigned effective Feb. 1 amid fallout from the crisis -- she responded simply: "I didn't have to face that decision."

"It's just offensive to suggest nothing wrong was done. And to not apologize? That's just wrong," Chaffetz told McCarthy, who was asked why she couldn't have used enforcement mechanisms in the Safe Drinking Water Act sooner to force the state and Flint to act. But she maintained that she first had to "show the state wasn't taking appropriate action" -- a process which took months.

As for Snyder, Democrats at the hearing angrily called for his resignation, too, with members of the committee citing e-mails that suggested he did not consider Flint's water a priority -- a charge he denied. Democratic members of the committee were incredulous that members of Snyder's inner circle were well aware of the problems early on, yet somehow failed to inform the governor until last fall.

"If someone gave me water that looked like urine and had a smell to it ... I wouldn't want my family drinking it and I wouldn't be drinking it," said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's ranking Democrat. "It looks like everyone knew about this problem but you. ... I got to tell you, you need to resign."

At another point in the hearing, Cummings likened the Snyder administration to a corporation that sells poisoned toys to children. Another Democrat, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, criticized Snyder's repeated attempt to spread the blame by saying the crisis was a failure at all three levels of government -- city, state and federal. Cartwright called the governor's denials that he knew of the lead problem last year implausible, saying, "Pretty soon we will have men who strike their wives saying ... there were failures at all levels."

"Not a day or night goes by that this tragedy doesn't weigh on my mind," Snyder said, explaining that MDEQ officials repeatedly told his office Flint's water was safe when it was not, and that he has tried to replace a "culture that valued technical compliance (with the law) over common sense" in the agency.

Snyder also was forced, however, to acknowledge that the emergency manager law that he championed had failed Flint, at least in regard to its water supply, since it was a Snyder-appointed manager who authorized the switch to using Flint River water in 2014.

"This is a failure of a philosophy of governance that you advocate," U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., told Snyder. The congressman said the emergency managers in Flint sought to save $4 million that brought the city "to its knees."

Meanwhile, Cummings also criticized Snyder for charging taxpayers $1.2 million to cover his outside legal fees related to the crisis. "It makes me sick," he said.

If the EPA was guilty of anything, Cummings said, it was not acting sooner "to rescue the people of Michigan from Gov. Snyder's vindictive administration and utter incompetence."

Michigan members of the committee -- U.S. Reps. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township; Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield; and Tim Walberg, R-Tipton -- also asked questions of the witnesses, with Lawrence, in particular, questioning Snyder about a July 2015 e-mail written by his former chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, which wondered whether concerns in Flint were being taken seriously enough.

Several other members questioned how Snyder would not have heard about that e-mail, even if he wasn't copied in on it. Walberg, on the other hand, questioned McCarthy about e-mails from September 2015 -- reported by the Free Press on Wednesday -- that showed she saw the potential for Flint becoming a crisis then.

It wasn't immediately clear where the congressional hearings would go next, but Congress still has decisions to make regarding Flint: A package that would include at least $100 million in low-interest loans or grants for the city to replace damaged infrastructure, as well as other funding, is ready to be considered in the Senate. But it's still being held up by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has said he considers it a federalizing of water infrastructure spending.

Meanwhile, both Snyder and McCarthy agreed on one thing: There need to be revisions to the complicated Lead and Copper Rule, with Snyder calling it "dumb and dangerous" in that it doesn't ensure the worst sites for lead are tested in cities, and that there aren't concrete targets for replacing lead water pipes throughout the nation.

Without a change, he said, "this tragedy will befall other American cities."

McCarthy, on the other hand, while saying the rules "definitely need clarification," said that if they had been followed properly in Flint, the crisis wouldn't have happened -- a stance which is at least somewhat at odds with her own agency's memo last November, which suggested that "differing" interpretations of the rule, like Michigan's, were possible.

At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest expressed confidence in the EPA to police the nation's water systems following the Flint crisis.

"The EPA administrator sent a letter to governors coast to coast, saying that they need to clarify exactly how they are implementing the Lead and Copper Rule to make sure that nothing is falling through the cracks," he said. Earnest added that McCarthy, "understands how serious this is."

The White House continued to put the blame for the Flint crisis at the feet of state and local officials, but stopped short of calling for Snyder's resignation.

"Obviously the citizens and voters of the state of Michigan are going to have to decide who they want to lead their state," Earnest said.

(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press