U.S. EPA "aided, abetted and emboldened" unethical behavior at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, leading to the widespread lead contamination of Flint, Mich., drinking water last year, a noted scientist said this morning.
Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards, who led a team of students that disclosed the lead problems, focused on former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman’s failure to step in and stop the leaching of the powerful neurotoxin in the city’s drinking water.
"EPA had everything to do with creating Flint," said Edwards, responding to Hedman’s testimony today before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
State and federal officials had consistently downplayed reports that the water in Flint was tainted with lead, which can affect brain development in young children. Edwards’ team tested samples last September, showing that some city residents were consuming water with lead levels that were thousands of times higher than the legal limit.
In her first public appearance since her resignation on Jan. 21, Hedman defended her role and fought back criticism she had faced in the media as someone who "sat on the sidelines" of the crisis.
"Though I’ve left government service, I’ve not stopped worrying about the people of Flint," said Hedman, her voice choked with emotion.
Edwards, who uncovered a similar problem of lead contamination in Washington, D.C., a decade ago, rejected Hedman’s claims of innocence. He added that he was "dumbfounded" by a Washington Post op-ed from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy yesterday that laid the blame on the Michigan Department of Environment Quality (E&E Daily, March 15).
"I guess being in a government agency means never having to say you’re sorry," said Edwards, adding, "Why shouldn’t she suffer the same or a worse fate than a common landlord doing the same thing?"
Hedman vehemently denied wrongdoing, particularly concerning a leaked EPA memo from Region 5 scientist Miguel Del Toral. Del Toral wrote a memo in June alerting his superior of serious concerns with Flint’s water. The memo was published soon after it was written, and Del Toral was silenced and disciplined by EPA, according to Edwards.
Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) asked Hedman if she had apologized to then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling for the memo. Hedman said she did not apologize for the leak of the Del Toral memo. Rather, she told the panel, she said she was sorry for taking an entire day to respond, because she had been out of work for a medical procedure.
"I don’t think we did anything wrong, but I do think we could have done more," Hedman conceded.
She added that EPA had planned to release Del Toral’s memo as a report, but was delayed because of "a redaction issue" and did not release it before it was published in a story from American Civil Liberties Union journalist Curt Guyette.
"He is a hero," Hedman said of Del Toral.
Chaffetz lambasted Hedman for not taking on fault.
"You still don’t get it, and neither does the EPA administrator," he said. "You screwed up, and you messed up people’s lives."