Keri Webber got on a plane to fly from her home city of Flint, Michigan to Washington, DC this week in the hopes of finally being able to meet with her governor. “We’ve tried to meet with him in Lansing, we tried to meet with him in Flint,” she said of Rick Snyder. “We came to DC [to] meet on neutral ground. We never got a response.”
Webber’s family has been through a lot over the last year and a half. One daughter showed lead lines in her bones last July, a sign of lead poisoning, while the other has Legionnaires disease. Her husband has lost half the vision in one eye after an artery exploded, causing permanent damage, and he also has extremely high blood pressure, both of which Webber attributes to the water contamination. He’s had to have a battery of tests and is now taking eight pills a day; his medical costs alone come to $8,000, yet the both of them rely on meager Social Security disability checks to get by. “We are going bankrupt over his medical bills, period,” she said.
She and the other Flint families who traveled to DC this week want to personally convey to Snyder that they are in need of immediate assistance, which they say mostly has yet to arrive. “We need pipes replaced,” Webber said. “Medical care, educational… We need comprehensive care now.” While the state has sent Flint $2 million and Snyder is trying to push through $165 million more, she said it’s not going to arrive until October. “We need help today.”
But on Wednesday, a day before Snyder was set to testify on Capitol Hill, she found out that he wouldn’t be meeting with her and the other Flint families.
Snyder In The Hot Seat
Snyder did testify before Congress on Thursday morning, alongside Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy. Compared to a somewhat subdued day of testimony on Tuesday, Thursday’s hearing was fiery, although anger was divided along partisan lines.
Democrats repeatedly berated Snyder about what he did or did not know during the time of the crisis. “I’m not buying you didn’t know about this until October 2015,” Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) said. “You were not in a medically induced coma.” They also repeatedly called for him to resign.
The first step in the crisis was that when Flint switched its water source from Detroit to the Flint River, corrosion control chemicals weren’t added to keep the water from leaching lead from pipes. In his testimony, Snyder confirmed that officials in the state Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) did not instruct the city of Flint to use those chemicals. “They failed in what I would deem common sense to say they should have,” he said.
Snyder maintains he only found out about the lead contamination issues late last year. Emails between Snyder’s top aides and legal advisers in late 2014 showed that they described the water situation as an “urgent matter to fix” and “downright scary,” with many arguing that the city’s source should be switched back to Detroit. Snyder testified that he wasn’t looped in or made aware of the contents of those emails. “I recall in that time period we discussed issues… the color and odor of the water, including E. coli,” he said. “Several issues, but never related to lead.” He said that he didn’t become aware of the dangerous lead levels in Flint’s water until October 1, 2015, at which point he took “immediate action” by reconnecting to the city to Detroit water, distributing water filters, conducting blood tests, and sending $67 million in state funding.
Snyder was asked about the Legionnaires outbreak, which has killed ten people and infected scores more, although state and federal officials have still not tested the water to determine whether it was the cause. On Thursday, Snyder said he didn’t learn of the outbreak until 2016 and that the MDEQ “should have done more to escalate the issue.” He added that given the timing with the change in the water source, “It’s a concern” that it was the cause.
Snyder also testified that the emergency manager system, in which governor-picked officials take control of financially stressed towns like Flint, failed. “In respect to the water issue, that would be a fair conclusion,” he said.
Blaming The Feds
Republicans, for their part, by and large called for McCarthy to resign, with Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) calling for her to be fired or impeached if she refuses. She maintained that the agency didn’t become aware of the fact that Flint wasn’t using corrosion controls until July of last year, when it took action. “We were strong armed, we were misled, we were kept at arm’s length, we couldn’t do our jobs effectively,” she said of the relationship with the state agencies. “We did not create this problem.”
McCarthy said that the agency is currently looking at how to strengthen its lead and copper rule, which is meant to eliminate lead hazards from old pipes but which Snyder called at the hearing “dumb and dangerous.” It hasn’t gotten an update since 2007 and is riddled with problems that mean it often fails to protect communities from poisoning. “It clearly should be strengthened,” she said, saying a draft proposal will be released in 2017.
Neither of the responses from Snyder nor McCarthy were enough for Webber, who feels both of them should resign. “Gina McCarthy, if she really believes the EPA did a wonderful job, then yeah I think she should resign because no other city needs to have that kind of help,” she said. And as for Snyder, she said, “I hope if nothing else he is dead politically. He should not even have control over an animal shelter, nothing.”
Although Webber wasn’t able to meet with Snyder, she said it’s been worthwhile to travel to DC. “After two years of us screaming on the ground and asking for help and being totally ignored by our own local and state government,” she said, “to come down here and at least talk to people that are fighting for and really supporting us, angry on our behalf, on a more emotional level that really does help.”
Still, she can’t shake seeing one revelation at Tuesday’s hearing: an email that was made public from Debbie Baltazar, a water chief for the region of the EPA that includes Michigan, which said, “I’m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for,” citing concerns about its finances. “That was an absolute punch in the gut,” she said. She turned to her daughter, at the hearing with her, hoping her daughter hadn’t heard that. “It’s bad enough for the adults to feel expendable,” she said, her voice catching with tears. “But our kids… they don’t need to know.”