The U.S. House Oversight Committee grilled federal and State of Michigan officials Wednesday on their roles in the poisoning of Flint’s water. As you would expect, the finger-pointing was impressive.
“It’s the question of the day,” said Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Director Keith Creagh. “Who made what decision when?” That question may be more important to Mr. Creagh than it was to the busloads of Flint residents who attended the hearing, so many that they had to be rotated out periodically so that everyone had a chance to watch the proceedings. For them, the question seemed to be, when will people go to jail for what they did and didn’t do?
MDEQ was one of two primary targets of questioning, the other being the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), represented at the hearing by Deputy Assistant Administrator Joel Beauvais. Each agency attempted throughout the questioning to shift blame onto the other. At issue is the the question of who was responsible for implementing corrosion controls in Flint’s water treatment facility. Such controls would have been necessary to protect Flint residents’ service pipes, many of them made of lead, from corroding and leaching metals into tap water.
“MDEQ incorrectly advised the City of Flint that corrosion-control treatment was not necessary, resulting in leaching of lead into the city’s drinking water,” Beauvais said. “EPA regional staff urged MDEQ to address the lack of corrosion control, but was met with resistance. 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.”
MDEQ’s Creagh tried to cast a different light on events. “Between February (2015) and the end of September 2015, there were multiple e-mail exchanges and conference calls between MDEQ and EPA,” Creagh told the committee. “Yet when the parties were unable to come to consensus on its implementation in July 2015, the EPA failed to provide the legal opinion requested by the MDEQ until November 2015.”
The Oversight Committee held the hearings specifically to investigate the role of the EPA in the crisis, and Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, had strong words for the EPA’s Beauvais. “What evidence can you give to us that this is a high priority?” Chaffetz demanded. “It took a year from the first (reports of high lead levels) … before EPA issued a directive” ordering the state to implement recommendations in Flint. “The public has a right to be outraged. Outrage doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
MDEQ’s Creagh did not escape unscathed, however. In one of the most emotional moments of the hearing, Representative Elijah Cummings, the committee’s ranking Democrat, excoriated Creagh for what seemed to Cummings a disregard for the importance of the people of Flint. You can watch the exchange here.
The hearings only scratched the surface of the negligence and lies that took place for a year and a half after Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and his staff made the decision to change Flint’s water source from water supplied by Detroit to water drawn from the intensely polluted Flint River in a bid to save money and pay off Wall Street creditors. Almost immediately, residents began to raise concerns about the discolored and foul-smelling water that had begun to come from their taps.
Earley, however, was not on hand at the hearing, having denied service of a subpoena. Also conspicuously absent was Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. “We are missing the most critical witness of all: the governor of the State of Michigan,” Cummings said.
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