By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A congressional panel on Tuesday criticized the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan officials for failing to do more to sound the alarm about high levels of lead in the city of Flint’s drinking water.
“What happened in Flint can never happen again. It is almost unbelievable how many bad decisions were made,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“Government at every level – local, state and federal – made poor decisions.”
Flint, a predominantly African-American city of 100,000 about 60 miles northwest of Detroit, switched its water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014 to cut costs. The river’s corrosive water leached lead from city pipes, creating a public health threat marked by high lead levels in blood samples taken from children.
Lead is a toxic agent that can damage the nervous system.
The crisis has drawn national attention and led to calls for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to resign. It has also led to several lawsuits in state and federal courts, and federal and state investigations.
The water supply was switched back to the Detroit system last October.
At Tuesday’s hearing, a former regional EPA head, Susan Hedman, who resigned in February, was criticized by members of the committee for not acting sooner to use her powers as the regulator to better protect Flint residents. She defended herself, however.
“I don’t think anyone at the EPA did anything wrong, but I do believe we could have done more,” Hedman said. “I did not sit silent.”
Representative Buddy Carter, a Georgia Republican, blasted Hedman as well. “I’m sorry, there’s a special place in hell for actions like this,” he said of the former EPA official’s tenure before the Flint crisis mushroomed into a national story.
Darnell Earley, a former state-appointed emergency manager in Flint, also was criticized for failing to ask enough questions about the safety protocols in place at the time of the city’s water-source switch.
Governor Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy are scheduled to testify before the same panel on Thursday.
Internal EPA memos and emails Chaffetz released about the crisis raised questions about the agency’s actions and the state’s incompetence.
“Lead lines + no treatment = high lead in water = lead poisoned children,” Miguel Del Toral, an EPA official critical of the agency, wrote in a Sept. 22, 2015, email to other agency officials. “At every stage of this process, it seems we spend more time trying to maintain state/local relationships than we do trying to protect the children.”
In July 2015, EPA official Jennifer Crooks said in a summary of an agency meeting on Flint that “it doesn’t make sense to discuss with the state what happened in the past … as the state sees the lead levels climbing, I don’t see the benefit in rubbing their nose in the fact that we’re right and they’re wrong.”
Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, a water engineer who first raised the issue of Flint’s lead contamination, was critical of Hedman’s testimony.
“I can’t help but comment on the qualities that seem to be valued in administrators at the EPA: willful blindness, in this case to the pain and suffering of Flint residents; unremorseful for their role in causing this man-made disaster; and completely unrepentant,” he told the committee on Tuesday.
He said the EPA has never apologized for what happened in Flint. “I guess being a government agency means you never have to say you’re sorry,” Edwards said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Matthew Lewis)