Dems seek to elevate issue; Clinton makes stop

By Tiffany Stecker | 02/08/2016 07:49 AM EST

House Democratic leaders are this week planning to put their own spin on the water crisis in Flint, Mich., as debate rages over a congressional response.

House Democratic leaders are this week planning to put their own spin on the water crisis in Flint, Mich., as debate rages over a congressional response.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) are planning to testify during the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing.

Democrats have been working to be at the forefront of the Flint crisis. This weekend, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took a break from campaigning in New Hampshire to visit Flint. The party is also planning a debate there.


House Democrats sent a letter to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) on Thursday, inviting him to give testimony. Democrats have asked Snyder to be included in the witness list at congressional hearings for weeks, laying the blame for the situation squarely on his shoulders.

"To date, Congress has not heard testimony from you on the Flint water crisis," they wrote. "Seeing how it was your administration’s decisions that led to this public health crisis, including Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, we believe it is important to hear testimony from you on this matter."

Snyder sent a revolving cast of emergency managers to Flint between 2013 and 2015 to solve the city’s financial woes. It was during that time that one of the managers, Darnell Earley, oversaw a switch in the water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

The river water corroded pipes and service lines throughout the city over the course of 18 months, leaching lead into the drinking water. Flint now faces about $60 million in pipe replacements, plus public health and education costs.

Last Wednesday, the GOP-controlled House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing didn’t focus on the role of Snyder’s administration. Rather, it targeted U.S. EPA’s role in the calamity that has left close to 100,000 residents without potable tap water (Greenwire, Feb. 3).

EPA leaders knew by the middle of last year that the Flint water treatment facility was not adding corrosion-controlling chemicals to the water but failed to notify the public or hold the state environmental agency accountable.

In a letter last week announcing a new probe, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked EPA for all communications between Administrator Gina McCarthy and former Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the city of Flint. Hedman stepped down last month in the wake of the scandal.

Dems slam Snyder

Kildee, who won a seat on the Democratic Steering Committee on Friday, slammed the Snyder administration in his testimony in the Oversight Committee hearing last week.

He criticized MDEQ for dismissing residents’ complaints of strange-colored and foul-smelling water, as well as its efforts to clean up appearances when outside scientists confirmed there was something wrong.

"The fact that they’re looking at this as a public relations problem rather than a public health problem says a lot," said Kildee after his testimony.

One of those outside scientists will testify at this week’s hearing. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, found that the percentage of children with elevated blood levels had doubled since the city switched its water source to the river.

In certain zip codes, it had tripled. The state health services department did not take Hanna-Attisha’s findings seriously, recently released emails from Snyder show (E&E Daily, Jan. 21).

Yanna Lambrinidou, president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, will also testify. Lambrinidou is a close colleague of Marc Edwards, the engineering professor at Virginia Tech who uncovered the high lead content in the city’s water and whose results were also dismissed by the state.

Lambrinidou has criticized EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council for seeking to weaken regulations. The group of industry and nonprofit experts recently submitted recommendations to the agency on revising the Lead and Copper Rule, a decades-old regulation that dictates procedures to avoid lead in public drinking water (Greenwire, Feb. 2).

Response negotiations

The planned hearing follows turbulent days in the Senate, as Michigan Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters sought to tack on a combined $600 million in response to the crisis via an energy reform package (see related story).

Republicans were reluctant to support the measure, and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) offered a substitute amendment that would offset the Flint aid with a cut in an Energy Department clean energy loan guarantee program. The Senate failed to garner enough votes to move past a procedural vote (Greenwire, Feb. 4).

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) co-sponsored an amendment with Stabenow that would offer additional resources to any state to address lead poisoning in water. The Ohio EPA is currently grappling with its own contamination controversy in the village of Sebring.

Kildee and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) introduced a bill last week that would tighten EPA’s authority to notify communities of lead contamination if state and local agencies have failed to do so.

H.R. 4470 was originally on a calendar of tentative items for consideration this week. It then disappeared and reappeared. It’s not on the House Majority Leader’s official list for the week.

Meanwhile, Snyder has fired the first official tied to the water crisis. Liane Shekter-Smith, head of MDEQ’s drinking water division, was reassigned late last year to a position providing assistance to the deputy director, according to a spokesman for the state budget office. She was officially terminated from state employment Friday.

"The DEQ is working to change this culture and ensure mistakes that endanger our residents don’t occur again," said Snyder in a statement.

Clinton’s stop

Clinton spoke to members of a Baptist church in Flint yesterday, giving residents her word that she would continue to advocate for them and other struggling cities.

"I want you to know this has to be a national priority, not just for today or tomorrow," she said to the raucous applause of churchgoers. "Clean water is not optional, my friends; it is not a luxury."

In her speech, the presidential candidate recalled her work as a New York senator to reduce young children’s exposure to lead and highlighted her joy as a grandmother, watching her grandchildren grow.

"I will fight for you in Flint no matter how long it takes," she said.

The presidential candidate also appeared on CNN’s "State of the Union," making her one of the most vocal on the issue. The important New Hampshire primary takes place tomorrow.

Clinton vouched her support for Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who rose to the post after defeating Dayne Walling, the mayor who oversaw the city during the time it was receiving water from the Flint River, in last year’s election.

Weaver is "someone who is working every way she knows how to provide help and support that all of the people of Flint deserve," Clinton said.

The former secretary of State framed the recovery as an opportunity to rebuild Flint and provide work opportunities to locals. She called for the deployment of AmeriCorps volunteers to the city.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele lamented the water issue did not come up during the recent GOP presidential debate.

"The fact that no question was asked nor response volunteered by presidential candidates on [the Flint crisis] is both sad and irresponsible," he wrote on Twitter.

Schedule: The Democrats’ hearing is Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 2 p.m. in HVC-210 in the Capitol.

Witnesses: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Rep. Rosa DeLauro; Rep. Donna Edwards; Rep. Dan Kildee; Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha; Yanna Lambrinidou; Bilal Kareem Tawwab, superintendent of the Flint school district; and Eric Scorsone, founding director of the Michigan State University Extension Center for State and Local Government Policy.