WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers on Thursday called for the resignations of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, on the grounds that they failed to act fast enough to intervene with the city of Flint’s contaminated drinking water.
Snyder and McCarthy sat side by side before the House Oversight Committee as lawmakers from both parties grilled them on their response to the crisis, which has turned into a full-blown health emergency. It also has led to several lawsuits in state and federal courts, and federal and state investigations.
Under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, Flint, a working class mostly African-American city of 100,000 northwest of Detroit, switched water supplies to the Flint River from Detroit’s water system in 2014, to save money.
The corrosive river water leached lead from the city’s water pipes. Lead is toxic and can damage the nervous system. Blood samples taken from children in Flint contained high levels of lead.
The city switched back to the Detroit system last October.
Over 200 residents from Flint traveled by bus to Washington to attend Thursday’s hearing, including 10-year-old Jaylon Terry, who fidgeted in his chair in the committee room.
“I’ve been getting constant calls every day from his teachers,” said his mother, Lewenna Terry, who said the lead in his system has affected Jaylon’s attention span and grades. “The teachers have noticed it’s not just my son but other kids. The whole city has been poisoned.”
On Thursday, Republicans on the committee pinned much of the blame on the EPA, which many party members would like to eliminate because they feel the agency has too much power. Democrats pointed fingers at Snyder and Michigan officials, suggesting that a focus on cutting costs came at the expense of public health.
“You don’t get it, You still don’t get it. You just don’t get it,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, told McCarthy, criticizing her for failing to accept blame for the crisis. Chaffetz is the committee’s chair.
Several Republicans called on McCarthy to resign.
The committee’s top Democrat, Maryland’s Elijah Cummings, said Snyder’s administration was to blame for its mishandling of the crisis and called on the governor to resign.
“There is no doubt in my mind that if a corporate CEO did what Gov. Snyder’s administration has done, he would be hauled up on criminal charges,” he said in his opening remarks. “The board of directors would throw him out. And the shareholders would revolt.”
Snyder again apologized for the state’s poor response to the crisis, but said the blame can be shared at all levels of government.
“Let me be blunt,” he said in his testimony. “We all failed the families of Flint.”
McCarthy also said the EPA was part of a wider system failure in response to the crisis, but said the agency could have caught the problem faster if the state had shared information and cooperated more. She accused the state’s Department of Environmental Quality of “slow walking” its response, which prevented the agency from being able to “come to the rescue.”
“We were strong-armed. We were misled. We were kept at arm’s length,” she said, referring to state officials.
However, Snyder said federal bureaucrats could have responded sooner if they had used common sense.
Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Pennsylvania Democrat, accused Snyder of apologizing too late and called on him to resign.
“Plausible deniability only works when it’s plausible and I’m not buying that you didn’t know about any of this until October 2015,” he said. “You were not in a medically induced coma for a year and I’ve had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies.”
But Michigan’s governor insisted he was not the only one to blame.
More than 8,000 children are believed to have ingested tainted water in economically devastated Flint, which saw lead levels soar for more than a year before citizen activists brought the tap water contamination into the public eye.
Snyder on Thursday accepted some responsibility for the debacle, but told the House Oversight Committee there was plenty of blame to go around, including at the federal and local level.
“Not a day or night goes by that this tragedy doesn’t weigh on my mind — the questions I should have asked, the answers I should have demanded, how I could have prevented this,” Snyder told the House Oversight Committee.
He was adamant, however, that responsibility for the crisis was not his alone.
Snyder claimed his goal at this point was “delivering permanent, long-term solutions and the clean, safe drinking water that every Michigan citizen deserves.”
McCarthy also faced a tough grilling — mostly from Republican lawmakers — over why it took a year for her agency to act, and why no one at the EPA has been fired so far, although one senior official has resigned.
Snyder’s administration ordered various cost-cutting measures in financially struggling Flint — including a shift in the water supply from the Detroit River to the Flint River.
That, as it turns out, was a grave error, Snyder now admits.
Experts believe that the chemical-laced Flint River water corroded lead-bearing pipes, allowing large amounts of the chemical element to leach into the city’s water.
But Democrats on the panel did not accept the governor’s apparent remorse.
Critics who have called for Snyder’s resignation say he dragged his feet for months after first learning of the problem, making a dire health emergency even worse.
“There’s no evidence, even after you were warned by the mayor of Flint they had problems, and they begged you to come to Flint. You ignored them,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia.
“I’m glad you’re sorry now. I’m glad you’re taking action now, but it’s a little bit late for the kids in Flint whose health has been compromised, for people whose health and immunity systems were already compromised, for a city in America that is on its knees because of your emergency manager’s decision to save $4 million.”
The crisis was a huge blow to Flint, a once-thriving Rust Belt city already struggling from years of car industry shutdowns and layoffs.
Snyder told lawmakers, however, that he took action soon after being alerted to the city’s water problems.
“First, we quickly reconnected to the Detroit water supply to begin sealing the damaged pipes,” he testified.
“Second, I ordered the immediate distribution of water filters and extensive blood-level testing in schools and homes to identify those at the highest risk so they received health care, nutrition and additional support,” he said.
He added that additional diagnostic testing, home nurse visits and home water testing have been put in place.
The hearing was held on the same day that a news report found the problem of lead in U.S. water supplies may be far bigger than previously known.
Some 6 million Americans have drinking water tainted with higher levels of lead than allowed by federal guidelines, USA Today reported on Thursday.
The newspaper launched an investigation, which found higher than acceptable lead levels in about 2,000 water systems across the United States.
Tainted water was supplied to hundreds of day care centers and schools, the report said.
Children are the population most vulnerable to the pernicious effects of lead, a toxin that affects the neurological system and can lead to permanent learning delays and behavioral problems.