The charge has been leveled that state and federal officials put salvaging their careers ahead of making sure kids in Flint had safe drinking water.
“I guess being a government agency means never having to say you’re sorry,” said Virginia Tech researcher Mark Edwards, who helped sound the alarm on the lead contamination crisis.
There were tense and angry moments at a congressional hearing on the water crisis in Flint. The witnesses called before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee included three people who once held a measure of responsibility over Flint. They were a former mayor, an ex-state-appointed manager who once held more power than local elected officials, and the federal government’s former top environmental regulator for the Midwest. Each of them said they were sorry for what happened in Flint, but what happened, they said, was not their fault.
“This problem should never have happened in the first place. And I need to remind you, EPA had nothing to do with that,” said Susan Hedman, who was the EPA’s Region 5 director until January, when she quit after it was revealed her agency knew about the lead contamination but failed to warn people. She said the EPA could have done more to fix the situation, but it didn’t do anything wrong.
Former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley was also there, and also said he did anything wrong. “I believe I have been unjustly persecuted, vilified, and smeared both personally and professionally in the media, as well as by some state and federal officials, as well as by a misinformed public.”
Earley was part of a succession of emergency managers who was placed in charge of Flint. He was in charge when Flint switched from using the Detroit water system and started using the Flint River for drinking water. The untreated, corrosive water caused lead to leach from the old pipes into the drinking water.
Earley says he was carrying out decisions made by others, that he relied on expert opinions, and there was local consensus on switching from the more-expensive Detroit water system even if that meant using the Flint water system. But the former mayor says that’s hiding part of the truth. “We know now that we were getting bad information and worse water,” said Dayne Walling. “Children were poisoned with lead.”
Walling said Earley and other emergency managers were calling the shots and, once the state took over the city, it was their responsibility to get it right. Walling lost his reelection bid because of the water crisis, but he says he was never in charge.
Busloads of Flint residents trekked to Washington for the hearings. Bernadel Johnson was one of them, and she was left unimpressed by what she heard. “At least tell the truth about it. At least say, I made a mistake or I didn’t recognize it, but just to lie and point fingers just to get it off you. I don’t make no difference who you hurt. I don’t make no difference who you kill. It don’t make no difference who you poison?”
Mark Edwards, the Virginia Tech researcher, says mistakes were made by state and local officials, but he says the EPA has yet to acknowledge it could have stopped what happened in Flint. “No apology from EPA! Completely unrepentant and unable to learn from their mistakes.” And that’s a charge EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will most likely have to address when she appears before the committee Thursday. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is supposed to be there, and both should expect a tough round of questions.