On Tuesday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on the decisions and steps that led to widespread lead contamination in the water in Flint, Michigan. But Flint residents who were in the room expressed extreme disappointment at what they heard.
Congress is still stalled on an aid package to help Flint recover from the water crisis. The legislation is currently being held up in the Senate. Meanwhile, members invited witnesses to testify on the crisis this week.
Tuesday’s hearing included Darnell Earley, who was the state-appointed emergency manager for Flint when the city’s water was switched from Detroit to the Flint River without the use of corrosion controls; Dayne Walling, the city’s mayor during the same time period; Susan Hedman, who was the administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency region covering the city at the time; and Marc Edwards, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University professor whose testing and research first exposed the extent of the crisis.
None of the three witnesses who were in positions of authority when lead began leaching into drinking water admitted any responsibility. In his remarks, Earley said he has been “unjustly persecuted, vilified, and smeared – both personally and professionally” by allegations that he was involved in the decision to use Flint River water without protective chemicals. “It was not my decision to use the Flint River when the switch was made in April 2014,” he claimed.
Walling, for his part, testified in nearly direct contradiction of Earley’s testimony, saying, “I was not involved in any of these discussions about switching to the river.” He also denied that the city council made the decision either. “The truth of the matter was: the emergency managers and the state decided to switch Flint to the river,” he said.
And while some members of Congress sought to lay much of the blame with the EPA and “big government,” as Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) put it, Hedman steadfastly denied that the agency was at fault or had done anything wrong, only saying she wished it had done more.
None of this was enough for Desiree Duell and her son, Flint residents who were in attendance at the hearing on Tuesday. She had been hoping to hear government leaders acknowledge their roles in the crisis. “I was hoping that people would be taking more responsibility,” she told ThinkProgress.
That’s not what she heard. “To me it just sounded like a lot of people protecting themselves and their own interests — a lot of finger pointing, a lot of blame, but not a lot of concern for the residents of Flint,” she said. “This is more than someone’s career, because there are lives that are stake, and that’s what didn’t get across today.”
She has experienced the fallout of the water contamination crisis firsthand. She says she got an upper respiratory infection in the fall of 2014 that “wouldn’t go away.” At one point things got so bad that her ear started bleeding when she got out of the shower. “Even to this day there’s still blood coming out of my ears,” she said. “My hearing has changed.”
Meanwhile, her son has gotten rashes on his skin from the water, plus she’s dealing the property damage from her corroded pipes. Her family now only uses bottled water out of fear of what even filtered water could do to their health and she has her son shower at the house of a relative who lives outside of the city. “My whole way of life, from brushing my teeth to cooking to the way I get water, has completely changed,” she said.
She feels that no one can escape scrutiny unscathed. “There should be blame across the board,” she said. “This is just a complete failure of government all the way around.”
“When it comes down to it, if you are truly, genuinely trying to help the people of Flint, it’s time to come super clean, be super transparent and accountable to your actions, and that just didn’t happen today,” she said.
For his part, Early said the city council voted in 2013 to use Flint River water. He also said he was told by water treatment experts that the water was safe and “corrosion of pipes and lead leaching were never issues raised during my tenure as EM,” which lasted from October 2013 to January 2015. Instead, he said he was only aware of needing to take actions to treat bacteria in the water and claimed to have been “grossly misled” by EPA experts and those at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and that he was “at the mercy of their scientific and regulatory analysis.”
“Flint’s crisis is not rooted in a failure of leadership, but rather resulted from improper treatment of the water — an issue which fell squarely to MDEQ and EPA,” he said. “While I may share some leadership responsibility by virtue of my role as an EM, this was not a leadership issue — this is purely a water treatment issue.”
Walling pointed the finger at former Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz for the decision to use Flint River water. “These same decisions would not have been made by city council,” he said. He claimed to have raised concerns about river pollution internally and also told the committee that he raised issues in a letter sent directly to the governor in January of 2015. “I wasn’t seeing enough being done by the emergency managers in Flint to address this problem,” he said. “I believed this needed to go directly to the governor.”
Earley’s testimony at the hearing was notable given that he originally declined an invitation to testify, leading to Congress subpoenaing him. The hearings will resume on Thursday, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will testify. Republicans had at first declined to bring Snyder in front of the committee for testimony.
Duell is hoping she’ll get more from those testimonies. “I hope that people become super transparent,” she said. “I hope that Governor Snyder on Thursday really comes clean about what he knows, and I think that he should ultimately resign.”