Howes: Common sense eludes government in Flint water debacle
It’s hard to decide which was more galling Thursday:
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s repeated insistence that her agency “did nothing wrong” in the Flint water crisis when the paper trail clearly says otherwise. Or Gov. Rick Snyder’s testimony that no one in his inner circle alerted him officially to proof of lead in Flint’s water until just before Oct. 1, 2015.
Seriously? This in an administration whose top people, including the governor’s lawyers, spent the year before exchanging emailed concerns; holding conference calls with Environmental Protection Agency officials worried about lead spikes in Flint water; clinging to bureaucratic processes when the common sense, noses and eyes of regular people in Flint screamed otherwise.
“Where is common sense,” Snyder repeatedly invoked before a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington. “I get so mad. I should not have believed them,” the “quote unquote experts.”
But he did. If anything exemplifies the governor’s most damaging miscalculation in the crisis consuming his legacy it was his readiness to trust “the experts.” He accepted reassurances by the state Department of Environmental Quality that Flint’s brown, stinky water was safe and untainted by lead particles already coursing through the municipal system.
He used those “expert” opinions to parry concerns advanced by Flint ministers, a Virginia Tech professor, a local pediatrician — all of them convinced, rightly, that Flint’s water was flecked with lead released when the city switched its water supply to draw from the Flint River.
And when innate political intuition might have caused Snyder to challenge the experts in favor of the real people clamoring for action — the kind of instincts Michigan possessed in predecessors John Engler or Jennifer Granholm, that Detroit has in Mike Duggan — Snyder, the CEO-turned-governor, whiffed.
Each time Snyder discussed the issue with then-Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore, he seemed to suggest on Capitol Hill, experts assured him the water was safe — until last Sept. 28, when an official reversal on lead in the water unleashed the turmoil consuming his administration and weighing on Flint and its residents.
“It looks like everyone knew about these issues but you, is that right?” asked Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, the committee’s ranking member. “You were missing in action. That’s not leadership.”
“I was not missing in action,” Snyder responded. “Congressman, I had ongoing discussions about a number of issues in Flint,” conversations that focused on the color of water, its odor and its E. coli count — not lead.
Cummings continued: “You cannot be trusted. I gotta tell you: you need to resign.”
Not at all likely. Barring a blockbuster revelation yet to be discovered by congressional investigators or the news media, Snyder almost certainly will persevere and make the rehabilitation of Flint and its water system the cornerstone of his remaining term.
Criticism will continue. As expected, the third congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis cleaved along partisan lines. Democrats hammered the competence of Snyder, his administration and its emergency manager law, and Republicans excoriated the EPA for failing to act quickly enough and then effectively denying any responsibility for the failure.
The irony was too much for Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat. Here were Republicans, many of them philosophically predisposed to neuter, even euthanize, the EPA, slamming McCarthy for being too slow to engage the agency’s machinery to help Flint. Hypocrisy in a hypocritical town, maybe, but beside the point.
“I’m not playing the blame-shifting game, sir,” McCarthy told a flabbergasted Rep. Mark Meadows, R-NC. “The system failed. We are part of the system.”
Except McCarthy liberally dispensed blame — to bureaucrats in the Michigan DEQ and to the state generally. When she wasn’t making snarky quips in her native Boston accent, she rolled her eyes, or dismissed anyone who questioned the official, and presumably lawyered, narrative advanced by her and the agency she leads.
Even some committee Democrats appeared to grow weary of her intransigence, a personification of the arrogance of unaccountability animating outsider challenges from the right and the left in this year’s presidential election cycle. They’re never wrong; you always are.
By most accounts, however, McCarthy has a point — the EPA did not “cause” the problem in Flint. But its slow reaction, its adherence to Byzantine rules, its confusing Lead and Copper Rule, and its condescension to the rubes in flyover country wasted months and exposed more Flint residents to tainted water.
Much of it could have been spared with a high-level phone call or two between the governor and the EPA boss, but that never happened because, well, that’s not the “process” the feds follow and because the “experts” assured Snyder all was fine. It wasn’t.
“I will take responsibility for not acting quickly,” McCarthy said amid one of her frequent tangles with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the committee. “But I will not take responsibility for causing the problem.”
Fair enough, given the document-backed narrative and impenetrable federal Lead and Copper Rule governing water quality that Snyder called “dumb and dangerous.” It probably is, and the bungling of government at all levels made the mess Flint’s problem.
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.