Howes: Ineptitude overshadows heroes in Flint fiasco

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

If Wednesday’s congressional hearing into the Flint Water Crisis proved anything, it’s that neither Republicans nor Democrats dispute the central narrative: emergency managers working for Gov. Rick Snyder made the call to draw water from the Flint River.

And officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed to require the city to use so-called “corrosion controls” to ensure lead would not leach from old pipes into the new source of drinking water supplying a minority-majority city of nearly 100,000 people.

Beyond that, there swirls a lot of blame tinged with partisanship — and stark evidence that too few players in this sad tale, beyond a college professor and an intrepid Flint mom named LeeAnne Walters, possess the credibility to expose inept, even mendacious, government bureaucrats at multiple levels.

That includes the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Its stonewalling over the Flint debacle, punctuated with late-to-the-party outrage this week from Administrator Gina McCarthy, compounds the problem and threatens to make Team Snyder the model of transparency by comparison. No easy thing, that.

“They’re not enforcing the law,” Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech civil engineering professor whose testing confirmed abnormally high lead levels in Flint’s water, said of the EPA. “They’re not enforcing their own policies. Had it not been for outsiders, the children of Flint would still be drinking that water to this day.”

Water expert blames DEQ �cover-up� for Flint crisis

He accused the federal agency charged with protecting the nation’s drinking water supply of failing, among other things, to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests regarding lead-tainted water in the nation’s capital going back nine years. He said the feds are soft-pedaling similar problems in Durham, N.C., and Washington, D.C. He said they muzzled one of their own water experts, Miguel Del Toral, instead of allowing him to tell the people of Flint the facts about their water.

Exoneration it isn’t, which is why Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee seldom missed a chance in the hearing to slam the EPA. They were playing to their base, as surely as were committee Democrats hammering the legitimacy of the Michigan Emergency Manager Law accused of enabling the entire fiasco.

Both sides are right, if to different degrees. As much as the evidence so far shows that EPA and MDEQ bureaucrats hid details of Flint’s water from the public, it’s undeniable that the decision to draw water from the Flint River was made by emergency managers who reported directly to the governor — not the EPA or an emasculated Flint City Council.

Emergency managers “in Michigan have absolute authority over local governments,” testified Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint. “And that emergency manager failed. There’s an effort here to create a false equivalency of responsibility. In Michigan, there’s really no doubt about who’s responsible.”

True, which is why none of the committee’s Republicans mustered a shred of defense for the state or the governor. There also should be little doubt that politicians on all sides, and at all levels, are not-so-subtly using this crisis in an election year to play to their bases, to raise their profiles and to settle scores. Case in point: Wednesday in Washington.

Rep. Candice Miller, the Macomb Republican who will retire at the end of her current term, used the occasion of the hearing to announce a $1 billion package to benefit Flint. She makes a legitimate case, albeit coming from a potential contender for governor two years from now who’s not known for being a big spender.

Kildee, sounding more gubernatorial than the incumbent, used the session to do his job: to advocate for his district and demand that Snyder “write a check tomorrow for the $60 million” that Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has requested to begin replacing the lead water pipe infrastructure.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, used the hearing to slam the emergency manager law backed by Snyder and the state Legislature’s GOP leadership. Showing scant solidarity with fellow Michigan Republicans, he urged an independent, nonpartisan investigation, and effectively called out the state’s Republican lawmakers for doing too little.

“The state has the resources,” he said, pointing out that Lansing spends more ($30 million) on its Pure Michigan ad campaign than the Legislature could muster in a supplemental appropriation to benefit Flint ($28 million — presumably not including the $30 million the governor proposed Wednesday to reimburse Flint residents who paid for tainted water).

Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, announced Wednesday they would hold a debate in Flint two days before Michigan’s March 8 presidential primary. Who says this disaster isn’t being politicized?

The question answers itself for a drama, just beginning, that is getting very old for the people of Flint. As the governor and his Mission Flint Team, headed by special adviser Rich Baird, push ahead with efforts to repair damage there of the state’s making, myriad state and federal investigations are continuing.

They likely will include congressional subpoenas for Flint’s former emergency managers, deepening efforts to determine whether criminal charges are warranted, and an invitation for the governor to testify before Congress — an invitation he cannot refuse.

“This is not a Third World country,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, thundered. “I want everyone who is responsible for this fiasco held accountable.”

He is not alone.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.