Government officials fought on Wednesday over who was to blame for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, at a combative congressional hearing that also pitted Democrats against Republicans.
Joel Beauvais, acting water chief for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Michigan officials ignored federal advice to treat Flint water for corrosion-causing elements last year and delayed for months before telling the public about the health risks of lead-contaminated water.
"What happened in Flint was avoidable and never should have happened," Beauvais said.
EPA’s Midwest regional office urged Michigan’s environmental agency to address the lack of corrosion control in Flint’s water, "but was met with resistance," Beauvais told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "The delays in implementing the actions needed to treat the drinking water and in informing the public of ongoing health risks raise very serious concerns."
Countering the Obama administration official, Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, acknowledged that the state should have required Flint to treat its water, but said the EPA "did not display the sense of urgency that the situation demanded," allowing the problem to fester for months.
Creagh apologized for the state’s role in the water crisis, but said, "in retrospect, government at all levels should have done more."
The hearing was the first on Capitol Hill since the lead contamination crisis in Flint made national news last year, and frustrated Democrats complained that the Republican-led committee didn’t ask the state’s GOP governor to explain what happened.
Flint is under a public health emergency after its drinking water became tainted when the city switched from the Detroit system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The city was under state management at the time.
Water was not properly treated to keep lead from pipes from leaching into the supply. Some children’s blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has apologized repeatedly for the state’s role in the crisis. Snyder and state legislators have enacted $37 million in emergency Flint funding for the current fiscal year. Snyder is expected to propose an additional $30 million in state funding to help Flint residents pay their water bills.
The crisis has taken on partisan overtones, as Democrats blame the Republican governor and some Republicans target the EPA for failing to intervene sooner.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the oversight panel, said EPA should have acted on its own to warn the public about water problems in Flint.
"Why didn’t EPA tell the public they’re poisoning their kids if they drink the water?" he asked Beauvais, adding that EPA knew about potential health risks for nearly a year before making the results public.
"What good are EPA if they don’t tell kids" about lead in the water, Chaffetz shouted.
Democrats were equally adamant that the state was to blame.
"Can anybody tell me why Gov. Snyder is not here today?" asked Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa. "Because he’s hiding, that’s why," Cartwight added, answering his own question.
Chaffetz did not call Snyder to testify.
Creagh, the Michigan official, focused on a June 2015 memo by an employee in EPA’s Midwest regional office that outlined problems with Flint’s water. The memo was not formally delivered to state environmental officials until November — after the state had begun taking actions to address the lead problem, Creagh said.
Detroit schools emergency manager Darnell Earley, who was state-appointed emergency manager for Flint when its water source was switched, had been asked to testify at Wednesday’s hearing but declined. The oversight committee issued a subpoena to Earley on Tuesday, but his lawyer said it was impossible for him to appear at the hearing and suggested a different date.
In the Senate, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Democrats thought they had an agreement on a $600 million federal aid package for Flint that would be added to a bipartisan energy bill, but found out Tuesday night that Republicans were blocking it over a procedural issue.
Stabenow said she would thwart further work on the energy bill until Republicans agree to move forward on the package for Flint.
"At this point in time I think we need to make it very clear that we are serious, and if they want a bill we want to help the people of Flint," Stabenow said.
Stabenow said the amendment would have paid to fix pipes in Flint, among other help for the city. Democrats had proposed a $600 million package of federal aid, but Stabenow said they had agreed to less than half of their initial request.
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