Water expert blames DEQ ‘cover-up’ for Flint crisis

Melissa Nann Burke, and Jim Lynch

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of the EPA's Jennifer Crooks.

Washington — The engineering professor who helped uncover the contamination of Flint’s water told Congress Wednesday that primary blame lies with a few state environmental officials who “misled” Michigan leaders and residents and tried to “cover up” proof of high lead levels.

“One-hundred percent of responsibility lies with those employees at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. There’s no question,” Marc Edwards, a water expert at Virginia Tech University, told the U.S. House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform.

But Edwards also faulted the former Midwest chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Susan Hedman, who last summer discredited a key in-house memo that should have set off alarms about the failure of water officials to properly treat Flint River water.

“EPA had the chance to be the hero here, and Ms. Hedman snatched defeat for EPA from the jaws of victory,” he said.

Hedman resigned effective Monday. Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz said his committee wants her to give a deposition under oath to committee lawyers about her agency’s response to Flint.

Lawmakers on the committee pressed a state official and an EPA official for almost three hours on the government’s handling of the water crisis and how both the DEQ and EPA dismissed complaints and test results for months as city residents continued to consume lead-tainted water.

Republicans focused more on the EPA’s shortcomings in Flint, while Democrats tore into the state’s role. But the officials the committee most wanted to hear from were not in the room.

Chaffetz said former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, who refused an invitation to testify Wednesday, would be served with a subpoena by U.S. marshals if necessary. Earley, in a state-appointed role, oversaw the city when it switched the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure.

Democrats also continued to call for Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, to bring Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to Washington for questioning, saying the committee couldn’t conduct a comprehensive investigation without him.

Chaffetz said he has made no final decision on whether to call Snyder to testify, and made no guarantees about holding another Flint hearing.

“Look, I’m going to keep all options open. I’ve made no final decision one way or the other,” Chaffetz told reporters after the hearing.

Flint residents in attendance

Onlookers began lining up outside the hearing room on Capitol Hill shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday. The crowd included two busloads of residents from Flint and two busloads from Detroit, said Erik Shelley of the liberal group Michigan United.

Many wore “Flint Lives Matter” shirts and said they were disappointed not to hear from Snyder. Barbara Carr of Flint was among them.

“It’s unfair, and someone needs to be held accountable,” she said of the discolored, smelly water flowing from her taps at home.

Democrats and at least one Republican lawmaker criticized Snyder’s use of Michigan’s emergency manager law, which is applied to municipalities that run consistent deficits and amass huge debts.

Oversight Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, said the law might be unconstitutional because it usurps the democratic process.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Virginia, called the failures of the emergency managers in Flint “the consequence of putting ideology ahead of human beings and their needs and welfare.”

Speaking to reporters in Flint Wednesday, Snyder defended his policy of appointing managers to handle financial emergencies. “Emergency managers have been successful in a number of other places in Michigan,” he said.

Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, faced a grilling about his agency’s delayed response to Flint. He said EPA staff who urged Michigan officials to address the lack of corrosion control in Flint’s water were met with resistance.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, questioned why EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy didn’t make her first trip to Flint until this week — almost a year after her agency became aware of the city’s problems.

“I find it despicable that Gina McCarthy, the administrator, shows up in Flint yesterday instead of going there immediately,” Gosar said.

Beauvais said he didn’t believe McCarthy knew about the Flint crisis for eight months. “I came into this job in November of 2015, so I don’t have personal knowledge of all the communications that were done,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, questioned Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan DEQ, about his agency’s response to federal officials.

“With the law and your responsibility, what failed? ... And can you explain to me the response to EPA on February 26 (2015) advising the state of Michigan that there was lead and high levels of corrosion in Flint water?” Lawrence asked.

“It’s the question of the day, and that’s what many of the auditors and reviewers are looking at,” Creagh said.

Lawrence asked whether anyone has been held accountable at the state DEQ.

“As you know, there’s been some changes at the DEQ. There’s been suspensions at the DEQ. Everyone deserves due process,” Creagh replied.

“We are working in conjunction with both the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Procedures concern Walberg

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, asked Edwards why many water utility owners and operators aren’t following proper procedures for testing for lead in drinking water. Is it a “lack of clarity in federal regulations or lack of enforcement or both?” Walberg said.

“The only thing I can conclude is that they don’t care about children getting lead poisoning from drinking water,” Edwards said.

“Do you believe they’re violating the law?” Walberg asked.

“I believe that they’re not enforcing the law or enforcing their own policies,” Edwards said. “Had it not been for people completely outside the system, those people in Flint would still be drinking this water to this day. That is a fact.”

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, said it was “outrageous” that a “government-made” situation like Flint’s could happen in the United States, calling for an independent, nonpartisan investigation and for more state aid for Flint.

“The state spends $33 million on the Pure Michigan ad campaign, yet has provided only $28 million to make sure the people of Flint have pure water,” Amash said at the hearing. “The state has the resources. The state needs to make it right.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, who testified Wednesday, called on Snyder to “write a check right now for the $60 million the mayor of Flint has asked for to replace the lead service lines.”

“This is a public relations campaign (by the state) right now,” Kildee told reporters after testifying. “It goes beyond partisanship. This seems to me to be individuals who are just trying to protect their reputations, and are more concerned about that than they are about kids in Flint.”

Creagh submitted written testimony ahead of the hearing referencing an in-house EPA memo, prepared in June 2015 by agency water expert Miguel Del Toral. It laid out the public health dangers inherent in the state’s failure to require corrosion controls in the Flint River water.

Creagh highlighted an email from an EPA employee advising DEQ officials on how to deny having seen the Del Toral memo, after the state acquired it through a third party.

When asked by Walberg, Beauvais said Jennifer Brooks, a staffer in the Midwest Region 5 of EPA, sent the email.

“I do not know why that email was sent,” Beauvais said. “We are looking into that.”

Beauvais testified that he was not aware of any punishment of Del Toral: “Mr. Del Toral is a valued member of the EPA’s team. He is a nationally recognized expert in this area.”

Walberg asked Edwards’ opinion of whether Del Toral was punished by the EPA.

“Not in writing, but the way the EPA operates in general is that people who are causing trouble by doing their job are simply not allowed to do their job,” Edwards said. “They are silenced, like Mr. Del Toral was.”

LeeAnne Walters, who lives in Flint half-time, said her complaints to the city and state about her discolored water and her family’s health issues “were dismissed.”

Walters reached out to the EPA, and Del Toral was the “only one willing to address the problem.” She said she requested a copy of his June 2015 internal memo on Flint’s water and made it public “because people had a right to know.”


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Freelance writer Jacob Carah contributed.