A key congressional committee on Wednesday launched its investigation into the Flint, Mich., water crisis with its Republican chairman issuing subpoenas to force depositions from two officials, while Democrats complained the state’s governor has not been called to testify for political reasons.
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) accused the two officials of not being cooperative and was particularly critical of Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, whose lawyer declined to accept an earlier subpoena seeking his testimony before the panel.
“We’re calling on the U.S. marshals to hunt him down and give him that subpoena,” he said at a hearing, sparking a round of applause. Participation before the oversight committee “is not optional,” he noted, adding that when people are invited, “you show up.”
A subpoena is also being issued for Susan Hedman, the EPA’s former region 5 administrator, which oversees Flint. She has been criticized for trying to keep the contamination crisis under wraps – criticism Chaffetz appeared to echo by reading from several emails between EPA and state officials.
Democrats on the committee accused Republicans of playing politics with a public health catastrophe, by refusing to compel similar testimony from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and officials he tapped to run Flint.
“We are missing the most critical witness of all,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), referring to Snyder and presenting Chaffetz with a letter from committee Democrats demanding he organize another hearing featuring the governor and former Flint emergency managers. “If we act selectively for political reasons then we become a part of the problem.”
Congress is investigating the Flint water contamination crisis in the wake of a national outcry over revelations that lead in drinking water hit extremely high levels after the city switched its water source in April 2014 from Detroit’s water system to the local Flint River. The river water proved highly corrosive to the city’s lead pipes, leading to health problems in the city, especially among children.
Chaffetz said he planned to scrutinize officials at every level and did not rule out calling Snyder to testify.
“I’m disappointed in the response at the local level, at the state level and at the federal level,” he said. “This is a failing at every level.”
The subpoenas require Hedman and Earley to give depositions to the committee this month, and Chaffetz suggested more hearings would follow. The committee is expecting the EPA to produce more of Hedman’s communications and documents by the end of the week.
Earley’s lawyer objected to the idea his client, who oversaw the water-system change as Flint’s former emergency manager, was holding out on the committee.
“We aren’t running from anybody and we’re not hiding anything,” A. Scott Bolden said in an interview.
The subpoena to compel Earley to appear before the committee on Wednesday at 9 a.m. was delivered Tuesday at 6 p.m., a “completely unreasonable” turnaround, he argued, given that Earley is in Michigan. Bolden said the threat to send out U.S. marshals is overblown because he has already told the committee, in writing, that he would accept service of the next subpoena and his client would willingly testify.
“He wants to tell his story, he wants to set the record straight,” Bolden said, arguing that Earley, perhaps better than anyone, could enlighten the committee about the chronology of which people and agencies at various levels of government made decisions about Flint’s water.
Who bears primary responsibility for the crisis was the key question and point of contention throughout Wednesday’s four hour-long hearing.
Republicans, led by Chaffetz, were clearly laying the blame at the EPA’s doorstep.
“We’ve had something festering at the EPA for a long period of time, and often when there’s smoke, there’s a bigger fire,” Chaffetz said.
He cited a series of emails showing Miguel del Toral, the program manager in the EPA region that oversaw Flint, had alerted other EPA officials to unsafe levels of lead in drinking water and that Flint had not been taking steps to control corrosion of its pipes. The emails also indicated that Hedman, later, had urged Flint’s mayor to discount such warnings, because the report was still only in the draft stage.
“It’s important for the EPA to tell the public that they’re poisoning their kids if they drink the water,” Chaffetz said. “Why didn’t they do it? They sat on it for almost a year.”
Democrats said they supported Chaffetz’s decision to hold the EPA to task, but warned that responsibility for the crisis should lie primarily with the state government.
“When we talk about failure of government at every level, let’s just be clear about one point, one very important point: every decision that was made for the city of Flint was made by a state-appointed emergency manager,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a native of Flint who testified before the committee Wednesday.
“There’s an effort to create false equivalency of responsibility,” he added.
Kildee argued that the committee should push Michigan to “make it right for the people of Flint” – not simply by assigning blame, but by ensuring there are resources to fix the city’s water infrastructure and provide care for the children who were poisoned by the lead.
Senators are currently wrestling with an amendment that would provide $600 million in emergency spending to Flint, $400 million of which would only be made available if Michigan matches the money dollar for dollar. Michigan’s U.S. senators, Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, filed the amendment to an energy bill currently being considered on the Senate floor, but Republicans are insisting that any additional spending be offset.
Kildee argued Wednesday that Michigan should be shouldering the cost of remedying the situation.
“We need the pipes fixed in Flint. In fact, the governor should write a check tomorrow for the $60 million that the mayor has asked for… he’s sitting on a billion-dollar surplus,” Kildee argued. In addition, he said the Michigan government should pay for early childhood education, good nutrition and any other developmental assistance necessary to help children affected by contaminated drinking water.
Other lawmakers suggested Congress should find money to help families beyond Flint, noting that other cities have grappled with water contamination crises.
“We should set aside a fund or whatever, because we should make certain these kids are being taken care of,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), recalling the discovery of lead in Washington, D.C.’s water supply a decade ago.
The initial decision to change Flint’s water source was done to save money while the city was facing an economic troubles.
Experts testifying before the committee said the city could have avoided the crisis by adding phosphates to the water supply when they switched water sources, as legally required. This would have cost $80 to $100 a day, they said.
“In general, corrosion control, for every dollar you spend on it, you save $10,” said Marc Edwards, a municipal water expert and professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech. “But in Flint’s situation, every dollar you spend on it, you would have saved $1,000.”
These numbers struck a chord with lawmakers.
“For that much money, we poisoned the kids in Flint, didn’t we,” Mica said.
State officials testifying before the committee admitted more should have been done.
“It’s highly unusual across this country to go from one water source to another. And so the rigor should have been more when the water source changed,” said Keith Creagh, the director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, agreeing with lawmakers that that the crisis could have been avoided.
“We were minimalistic and legalistic in our behavior,” Creagh said.
Creagh added that he could not guarantee at this time the water in Flint was safe to drink.