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Biggest Question In Flint Water Inquiry: Who Should Lose Their Job?

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Someone should resign.  That was the message delivered Thursday by members of a congressional oversight panel looking into the drinking water crisis in Flint. 

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder testified, along with EPA chief Gina McCarthy.  Despite that general agreement that someone high up ought to get fired or quit, Republicans and Democrats disagreed on exactly who that should be. 

In his grilling before the committee, Governor Snyder acknowledged the state’s mistakes in the lead contamination crisis.  But he also blamed the EPA and others while defending his administration’s response.  “I took immediate action as soon as I learned there was a lead issue. We started issuing filters to people, doing water testing,” Snyder said.   

That’s when Congressman Matt Cartwright (D-Pennsylvania) jumped in and interrupted.  

“Governor, 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. You were not in a medically induced coma for a year. And I’ve had about enough of your false contrition and phony apologies.”

Cartwright was one of many Democrats on theHouse Oversight and Government Reform Committee who called on Snyder to resign. For his part, though, Governor Snyder says that is not on his agenda: 

“I’m grateful that I have been elected to serve the people of Michigan. I understand their anger. I have been humbled by this experience. And I’m going to make Flint and every community in Michigan a better place to live. We have a lot to learn and a lot to do.”

Snyder said he first became aware of the lead contamination of Flint’s water in early October, even though many of his top aides knew there was a problem much earlier, and some had serious reservations about turning to the Flint River as a source of drinking water.  But it was the failure of state environmental regulators to ensure corrosion control chemicals were used that actually caused lead to leach into the water. Snyder blamed that on “career bureaucrats” who put technical compliance with the rules above helping people.  “I get so mad that I never should have believed them,” he said. 

Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) said the episode represents a failure of Snyder’s vision of government that’s run a lot more like a business. 

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if a corporate CEO did what Governor Snyder’s administration has done, he’d be hauled up on criminal charges. The board of directors would throw him out, and the shareholders would revolt.”

While Democrats attacked Snyder, Republicans took aim at EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, many saying she should quit because her agency was slow to act once it became aware of lead in Flint’s drinking water.  “You screwed up!  And you messed up 100,000 people’s lives,” said House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), taking McCarthy to task. “…You take no responsibility.  You don’t think you did anything wrong.  You don’t think nobody did anything wrong.  Right?”

“I’ve already indicated that we could have worked more aggressively,” she replied. “I wish we had.” 

“Everybody’s still playing the blame game. Nobody wants to take responsibility,” said Nakiya Wakes following the hearing.  The mother of two young children joined a bus caravan from Flint to attend both hearings this week.   Wakes says she feels like Snyder and McCarthy dodged many tough questions, and she doesn’t feel any closer to getting answers on what went wrong.  But she says she did get this out of her trip to D.C.:  She got to take a real bath at the hotel and drink water right out of the tap.

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— Rick Pluta is the Managing Editor and Reporter for the Michigan Public Radio network.  Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Rick Pluta is the managing editor for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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