Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee March 17, as Congress seeks answers regarding the causes of the Flint, Mich., drinking water and lead poisoning crisis, determining the responsible entities and outlining solutions.
Snyder opened his remarks by acknowledging failures of government at all levels. “Local, state and federal officials—we all failed the families of Flint,” he said.
Snyder testified that the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality assured his administration that—from the time the city switched from using the Detroit water system to using Flint River water in April 2014—the water was safe. “On Oct. 1, 2015, I learned that our state experts were wrong,” he says. “Flint’s water had dangerous levels of lead. On that day, I took immediate action.”
But some House Democrats on the committee questioned Snyder’s timeline. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) cited emails obtained by the committee from the Snyder administration that he said indicate concerns about Flint’s water as early as February 2015. “People all around the governor, including his chief of staff, were sounding the alarms but he either ignored them or didn’t hear them,” Cummings said.
Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) also cited a January 18, 2015, letter from former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling to the governor, that said ‘there’s nothing more important in Flint right now than fixing the water problem.’”
“Plausible deniability only works when it’s plausible and I’m not buying that you didn’t know any of this until October 2015,” Cartwright said.
Republican representatives pressed EPA's McCarthy to take greater responsibility for the agency not stepping in sooner to address Flint’s water issues. At particular issue was EPA jurisdiction over Flint’s water supply under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Rep. John Mica (D-Fla.) told Administrator McCarthy “you had the ability to act. You have the compliance authority under law.”
McCarthy said the Safe Drinking Water Act gives states the primary responsibility to enforce drinking water rules, but EPA has oversight authority. She stated that “the state provided our regional office with confusing, incomplete and absolutely incorrect information. Their interactions with us were intransigent, misleading and contentious. As a result, EPA staff had insufficient information to understand the potential scope of the lead problem, until more than a year after that water supply was switched.”
In response to similar concerns from Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), McCarthy stated that “Congress was clear in the law and in the congressional record that they wanted us to keep in our lane and they didn’t want us to step on states' rights.”
McCarthy stated that the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality claimed it was taking appropriate action to address issues. “On the 21st (of October), they said they would,” she added. “I had no justification legally.”
McCarthy also said that the EPA is actively looking into revisions to the Lead and Copper rule. “The Lead and Copper Rule was revised under the previous administration to streamline the monitoring and reporting requirements,” she said. “We know that it needs to be strengthened.”
Snyder also urged Congress to pass a $220-million bipartisan bill “for aiding Flint immediately, so we can further protect the health and safety of Flint residents and families.” That bill includes $100 million for water infrastructure improvements through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.
Snyder’s proposed state budget asks for $165 million to address the water crisis.