EPA chief, Mich. governor trade blame in partisan slugfest

By Tiffany Stecker | 03/17/2016 01:17 PM EDT

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder pushed back today against U.S. EPA efforts to blame his administration for the contaminated Flint, Mich., water supply.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder pushed back today against U.S. EPA efforts to blame his administration for the contaminated Flint, Mich., water supply.

Testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Republican governor took issue with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s assertions that her agency wasn’t getting correct information from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. McCarthy also testified before the committee today.

Snyder pointed to three emails from EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago that show MDEQ was reaching out to the federal agency to solve the problem last summer.


"You can only take so much of this," Snyder said of McCarthy accusing MDEQ of misrepresenting information on the water crisis in an effort to evade EPA authority.

The emails include an June 8, 2015, note from Region 5’s Jennifer Crooks saying it "didn’t make sense" to start a program to control corrosion in lead water-supply pipes last summer because the city would be switching water sources in 2016.

High levels of lead in the drinking water followed the cash-strapped city’s 2014 switch from drawing water from Lake Huron to tapping the Flint River in an effort to save money. The move came under a state emergency manager appointed by Snyder.

"I’m always going to kick myself," Snyder said of the water switch. "But to also say that the EPA just didn’t get the information, I just ask you to take the time to look at those three emails."

EPA has attempted to portray Flint’s public health crisis as a consequence of the state’s cost-cutting efforts, including McCarthy’s op-ed in The Washington Post this week.

McCarthy maintained that stance in her testimony today.

"We were strong-armed, we were misled, we were kept at arm’s length, we couldn’t do our jobs effectively," McCarthy told lawmakers.

Emails released yesterday show that EPA Region 5 asked MDEQ at least four times to start a corrosion control program at Flint’s water treatment plant last year, an effort that would have prevented lead from the city’s pipes from leaching into household water.

Under the oversight of state emergency managers in 2013 and 2014, Flint agreed to end a long-standing contract with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and switch to the Flint River temporarily, until a pipeline could be built from Lake Huron to the city.

Flint water was turned back to Detroit’s supply, which comes from Lake Huron, in October 2015.

Snyder’s expansion of a law to install emergency managers to address the finances in Michigan’s cash-strapped cities has been blamed by Democrats for creating a climate where cuts took precedence over public health and the environment.

McCarthy and former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman have consistently claimed EPA did nothing wrong, although they concede that the agency should have been more skeptical of MDEQ. Hedman announced her resignation on Jan. 21. She and other officials who oversaw the change to the Flint River testified before the Oversight Committee on Tuesday (E&ENews PM, March 15).

"We should not have been so trusting of the state for so long," said McCarthy, describing the Michigan agency as "intransigent" and "misleading."

Calls for resignations

The packed hearing room was filled with families from Flint and elsewhere in Michigan to represent the residents who have suffered from nearly two years of lead-contaminated water.

A potent neurotoxin, lead damages brain development in children. Researchers say lead poisoning could affect thousands of Flint children’s intellectual development.

Lawmakers channeled their anger over the water fiasco along partisan lines.

Democrats grilled Snyder, while Republicans focused on McCarthy. Both leaders were told to resign.

"If you’re going to do the courageous thing, you should step down," Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told the EPA chief.

Chaffetz did not absolve Snyder but went easier on him.

"I think the idea and desire to reduce the rate of cost of water and to improve the quality of water is where it started but not where it ended up," Chaffetz said in his opening statement.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) called for McCarthy’s impeachment if she chose not to resign.

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) joined many Democrats in calling for Snyder’s resignation, comparing the Flint crisis to the George W. Bush administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

"Governor, don’t you have a moral responsibility to resign?" Boyle asked.

Snyder continued to highlight his role in the recovery, including his budget request for $232 million for Flint.

But Democrats saw Snyder’s resistance as a double standard.

"Susan Hedman from EPA bears not one-tenth of the responsibility of the state of Michigan … and she resigned," Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright said.