Biden's reported climate czar pick faces pushback over Flint water crisis

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

President-elect Joe Biden's reported choice of Gina McCarthy to serve as his climate czar has sparked furious debate over the former EPA administrator's role in the Flint water crisis, including pushback from some local officials who served during the lead poisoning of the city's drinking water.

Gina McCarthy appears with then-Gov. Rick Snyder at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing about Flint’s water crisis.

McCarthy, who served as head of the EPA from 2013 to 2017 under former President Barack Obama, was heavily criticized for the agency's response to the lead contamination of the city's water supply.

"The people of Michigan won’t soon forget Gina McCarthy’s mishandling of and failure to adequately respond to the Flint water crisis as EPA Administrator," U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, wrote on Twitter. "That ineptness alone is reason enough to disqualify her from a senior role."

Tim Walberg

Former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, concurred in a tweet: "Biden is so oblivious about Flint, Michigan water that he is empowering Gina McCarthy again. She was a disaster at EPA, and now he is bringing her back for more. Michigan, your votes mattered, and Biden is bringing Flint water to all of us."

But Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician who helped expose the water crisis, defended McCarthy's reported selection: "We need all hands on deck to reverse the environmental degradation and the dismissal of science" during President Donald Trump's administration at the EPA, she said.

"The EPA is almost at the point of disintegration. It's been thoroughly dismantled over the last four years and very much in the hands of industry and polluters," Hanna-Attisha said. "I'm looking forward to the return to the protection of the environment, public health, science and on climate change."

She added, "The GOP has no right to make any comments about environmental protections unless they were rebutting every single thing the current Trump administration and currently EPA has been doing."

McCarthy will advise the incoming president on issues surrounding climate change, which has been high on Biden's agenda.

Dr. Mona Hana-Attisha is the Flint pediatrician who helped expose the Flint Water Crisis.

Hanna-Attisha acknowledged there were "missed opportunities" during McCarthy's tenure as Flint was facing the crisis and that the EPA was "absolutely definitely responsible." But "so many branches of government" failed, she said.

"Yes, there errors made at the EPA," Hanna-Attisha said, "but more of the errors were definitely at the state level in Flint."

Former Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who was in office during much of the crisis, said McCarthy "didn't speak up for the people of Flint" but accused her Republican critics of hypocrisy in opposing her appointment.

"You use it when it's convenient for you but you didn't speak up when it was going on. That's really selective isn't it ... to use Flint as your metaphor," the former mayor said. "Now you want to use it to your advantage. But when you didn't speak up, I think that's bad. It's taking advantage."

Former Flint Mayor Karen Weaver

Still, Weaver had harsh words for McCarthy: "You were over the EPA. This happened on your dime. You were complicit and you let this happen and you knew what was going on. And you said nothing."

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said he has heard concerns from those in Flint about her appointment as climate coordinator and that "we must never forget the failures of the Flint Water Crisis."

“All levels of government, including the state of Michigan and the Environmental Protection Agency, failed Flint families," Kildee wrote in a news release. "The EPA should not have taken the state of Michigan at its word about the quality of Flint’s water."

Kildee, who said he has relayed those concerns to the Biden team, added that "what happened to Flint is not an anomaly, it is a warning to the rest of the country that we must get serious about better protecting public health and addressing the injustices that we see in society."

Both McCarthy and then-Gov. Rick Snyder faced blistering criticism, including calls to resign, during a March 2016 hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on the Flint crisis.

Democrats concentrated their fire on Snyder, who acknowledged state failures. The GOP governor told lawmakers that “career bureaucrats” lacked common sense when they didn’t require corrosion control chemicals in Flint water.

Committee Republicans focused their barbs at McCarthy, who refused under questioning to apologize or admit the federal agency did anything wrong in failing to make the lead contamination public before late September 2015.

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