Key players in the Flint water crisis testified before the House Oversight Committee on March 14. As at previous hearings, each witness blamed others for causing one of the worst cases of lead contamination of drinking water supplies in U.S. history.
Several witnesses also sought to set the record straight about their respective roles in the crisis. Susan Hedman, former administrator for the Great Lakes Region of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said she first learned that lead was leaching into the water supply in June 2015. She said she immediately offered technical assistance to the city, and on July 21, the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality agreed with EPA’s recommendation that corrosion controls should be added to the system.
“I did not sit on the sidelines,” she said. Once the state agency had been informed, she said her ability to intervene was limited because federal law gives legal primacy to state agencies, not EPA. Nevertheless, she resigned earlier this year. “This happened on my watch,” she said.
But Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) asked Hedman whether a section of the Safe Drinking Water Act required EPA to take action if there is “imminent and substantial endangerment to public health.”
Hedman replied that if EPA had overruled the state agency, “it was likely that the state of Michigan would argue that there was a jurisdictional bar” on EPA’s actions.
She denied “false allegations” by lawmakers and the media that she had tried to silence warnings from an EPA specialist who noted elevated lead levels in the water in Flint. Miguel del Toro, the specialist, “was a valued member of the Region 5 water team,” she said.
Marc Edwards, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who has been a vocal critic of EPA, claiming that they knowingly allowed municipalities to “cheat” on implementing the Lead and Copper Rule, said that EPA has shown “willful blindness…to the pain and suffering of Flint residents.” Edwards and a team at Virginia Tech were some of the first to take public local residents' worries about elevated lead concentrations in the drinking water, and the team recently conducted a second round of sampling.
He called EPA’s administrators “unremorseful for their role in causing this man-made disaster, and completely unrepentant and unable to learn from their mistakes.” He added, “I was not surprised when Flint occurred; I was expecting Flint to occur.”
Darnell Early, the emergency manager between 2013 and 2015 who inherited the responsibility of ensuring a smooth transition to a new water system delivered through a new pipeline, portrayed himself as a 20-year dedicated civil servant.
“I feel persecuted and vilified,” he said, noting that no one had told him about lead in the water. Rather, he was working with city public works officials and consultants to reduce known contaminants in the system.
But New York’s Carolyn Maloney (D) asked Early whether he had the power to switch back to Detroit water system once concerns were raised about the water from the Flint River. Early acknowledged that he did.