The Flint River is shown Jan. 21 near downtown Flint, Mich. Flint's water became contaminated with lead when the city switched from the Detroit municipal system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save the financially struggling city money. (Paul Sancy/AP)

If and when a list of recent political wonders of America is drafted, the story of former Flint, Mich., emergency manager Darnell Earley should probably rank among them.

Earley is perhaps best-known as the emergency manager in control of Flint and its major governmental and financial decisions during the time when the city moved to a cheaper and more corrosive water source. As a part of that change, city officials opted to ostensibly save funds with the new water source, then put that water through the city's pipes without the kind of additives that can prevent lead from leaching into drinking water.

As is by now well-known, that decision ultimately saved the city some short-term costs. However, it put more than 8,000 children at particular risk of permanent neurological damage — long-term health and decision-making problems that are quite likely to leave an already high-poverty city with many related challenges in need of wide-scale and long-term social and economic supports.

Now that the extent of the damage done has begun to become clear, or at least public, two things remains incredibly cloudy: 1) exactly who is responsible, and 2) how do the people of Flint ensure that anyone — anyone at all — is held accountable.

Rather than clarifying these matters, a congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis Tuesday (click here to watch the video) seemed to affirm the chief criticisms of the Michigan law creating the role of emergency managers like Earley — roles that gave these emergency managers "broad latitude" and authority over spending, public health and safety matters in cities, counties, school districts and other public agencies in fiscal crisis. They get and use that awesome power without having garnered a single vote.

The water emergency in Flint, Mich., is two years in the making. Here are the people who've played a key role in the crisis. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

When the law was the subject of extended debate in Michigan, critics argued that emergency managers represent an alarming end-run around democracy, allowing cost concerns to override all others and too much authority to reside with an unelected official and a murky network of decision-makers. That combination, critics of the law claim, is particularly alarming in a place like Flint or Detroit — overwhelmingly black, Democratic-leaning cities where voter priorities quite likely differ a great deal from those of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), the chief architect and advocate of the state's emergency manager law.

On Tuesday, it became pretty hard to argue that these critics were totally and completely wrong.

Few people inside or outside Michigan government can manage to agree on who made the actual decision to switch Flint's water source to the more corrosive Flint River, when the lead problems first became clear and who is truly responsible for what seems like a developing-world disaster right in the American heartland. Answers tend to break along party lines. And when Earley testified before Congress on Tuesday, little clarity followed.

Earley initially placed the blame at the feet of state and federal environmental officials — people Earley said had the sole expertise to evaluate the quality of Flint River water, the need for corrosion control efforts, when and how much lead was leeching into the city's drinking water. In fact, according to Earley, he's been unfairly blamed for the situation in Flint.

"I believe that I have been unjustly persecuted, vilified and smeared both personally and professionally in the media and by some local state and federal officials, as well as a misinformed public," Earley said during his congressional testimony.


Demonstrators protest over the Flint, Mich., contaminated water crisis outside of the venue where the Democratic U.S. presidential candidates' debate was being held March 6. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Earley insisted that Flint's mayor and city council played active roles in making various decisions associated with the water source switch and water treatment. To put a finer point on it, Earley said, "The fact that I was EM [emergency manager] at the time of the switch does not mean that it was my decision." 

Flint's former mayor, Dayne Walling, put the blame on state and federal environmental experts — naming specific names inside both agencies — and more obliquely on Earley and Snyder, saying that city officials were cut out of critical decisions and at key points, and that their concerns about the city's water were ignored because they were regarded as "enemies of the emergency manager system."

Marc Edwards, a Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee member and a professor of environmental and water resources at Virginia Tech, told Congress that the EPA has condoned and facilitated widespread "cheating" on tests to gauge lead levels in public drinking water since at least 2006 and as a result generated falsified scientific test results, and has worked actively to "cover up" problems in Flint and other cities around the country for a decade.

Susan Hedman, a former EPA regional administrator who oversaw an area that includes Flint before and after the switch, testified that she never retaliated against an employee who tried to sound the alarm about water quality issues in Flint. She also said that no one at the EPA was at fault for the situation in Flint, but that some things clearly could have been done differently. "We could have done more," Hedman said.

It was really rather remarkable. And for Flint, a city of nearly 100,000 people where nearly 42 percent of the population lives in poverty, there seems to be no direct route or method for holding any of the people above accountable. Flint has actually been under the control of four different emergency managers since 2011. And after Earley left the seat of power in January, just a few days later, he went on to an emergency manager role inside Detroit's public schools.

It's worth noting that inside Detroit's schools, conditions are so bad that they truly must be read to be believed. (In fact, we would strongly suggest that you take the time to read the New York Times' reporting on conditions in Detroit public schools, then take a look at Earley's rather incredible assessment of his success as the district's emergency manager in the resignation letter he submitted to Snyder in February.)

And then came the really telling moment. Finally, nearly three hours into the congressional hearing, Earley seemed to change course.

"I was responsible. It happened on my watch. I feel very badly. And yes, I'm sorry the people of Flint had to go through this," he said.

But Earley is no longer in charge. He's not even an elected official that anyone can boot out of office.

So it would seem that a critical question for both Michigan lawmakers and Snyder really does remain: What, if anything, will the state do now to ensure that Michigan citizens have some capacity to influence the decisions of emergency managers and hold accountable anyone involved in decisions that prove to be a problem or produce a crisis on the scale of the one in Flint?