House Dems complain about Snyder’s absence at hearing

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau
Mayor Karen Weaver of Flint testifies about the lead levels found in Flint's water supply during a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday.

Washington — Democrats didn’t waste much time Wednesday mentioning the absence of a particular Michigan governor at the witness table in a U.S. House meeting room on Capitol Hill.

Gov. Rick Snyder had been invited to testify about the Flint water crisis before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, but he declined so he could remain in Lansing to present his long-scheduled fiscal 2017 budget. The budget plan includes the Republican governor’s proposed $195 million in new aid to Flint, mostly in the form of educational and health assistance for residents.

“It’s disappointing that the governor of the state of Michigan is not here to answer questions from his point of view,” Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said as the hearing got underway.

Rep. Matthew Cartwright of Pennsylvania said Snyder “has a lot of questions to answer right here in Washington, D.C., and I’m amazed that he’s continued to hide.”

The House committee is an extension of the Democratic Caucus and does not have subpoena power to force witnesses such as Snyder to appear before them. The panel includes leaders of the Democratic caucus whose responsibilities include assigning members to House committees and advising leaders on policy.

More than 30 members attended Wednesday’s hearing to hear five witnesses gathered to speak about the lead contamination of drinking water in Flint, including city Mayor Karen Weaver and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Hurley Medical Center pediatrician who last fall detected high levels of lead in Flint children.

“If this can happen in Flint, Michigan, it can happen anywhere,” Committee Co-Chair Donna Edwards of Maryland said. “This is not about playing ‘gotcha’ but about figuring out what happened.”

Kildee noted that the decisions that led to the Flint contamination were made on the state level, where officials attempted to dismiss and discredit whistleblowers such as Hanna-Attisha.

Hanna-Attisha said her testing found the number of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels had doubled from a period before the city switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014. The rates of lead in children living in areas with the highest reported lead-water levels had more than tripled, she said.

“Our data greatly underestimates the number of children affected by lead in the water,” Hanna-Attisha said. “Due to the extended time period of potential exposure, the likelihood that most living in the area ingested the water directly or cooked with it ... it is highly likely that there are a large number of children whose elevated blood-lead levels have gone undetected.”

With no effective cure for lead exposure, Hanna-Attisha stressed the need to optimize children’s health through early childhood education, nutrition and health interventions.

“But we need your help. We cannot do this alone. We can’t do it as a state. We need the entire nation to lift our Flint children,” she told the committee.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, who visited Flint last weekend, said she was “shocked” that Snyder hasn’t used the Michigan National Guard to set up a temporary water distribution system and portable shower units throughout the city to serve schools, hospitals and residents.

“That was very troubling to me,” Kaptur said. “This is an infraction of the duty of the governor of the state. They have to become engaged. I was so angry when I left, I called the White House and said, federalize the Guard. Get that assistance to them. They said, Marcy, that might be overkill. Well, their children aren’t affected.”

Snyder in January called out National Guard members to help distribute water filters, bottled water and testing kits throughout the city.

Weaver said she didn’t believe the city had requested a temporary water system, but “we will do that.”

Weaver testified about Flint businesses closing, people getting sick and residents moving away. She asked the Congress to help restore the city and “rebuild its trust and confidence in government.”

She chafed at how the state hasn’t returned more authority to her and the City Council during the transition from emergency-manager oversight. “We’ve had enough of them telling us what’s best for Flint,” she said.

Yanna Lambrinidou, president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives and an adjunct assistant professor at Virginia Tech University, said she was on a panel that testified 12 years ago before Congress about the same issues affecting residents in Washington, D.C. “This is a repeat for us,” she said.

She stressed that what happened in Flint occurred not only due to the lack of anti-corrosion treatment for the water but because officials used flawed testing and targeted the wrong homes for testing.

“We know today that other cities in Michigan and other cities around country are using same exact protocols to sample for lead, and issuing assurances — just like the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did and just like the city of Flint did — that everything’s OK with the water,” Lambrinidou said.

“I urge and plead that this committee here use Flint as a lesson to be looking at other communities. ... Let’s take these lessons and address this problem now, nationally. Other kids are being hurt.”

Bilal Kareem Tawwab, superintendent of Flint Community Schools, said after hearing Hanna-Attisha’s news conference in September 2015, he switched students to bottled water.

“My students cannot walk to the nearest fountain to quench their thirst. This has become their new normal,” he said. “For our students, life has changed.”

Tawwab said the schools would need more support in the form of expanded special education, comprehensive testing to better understand students’ issues, and year-round classes.

The district is working to open schools to allow for the expansion of early childhood education, as at least 2,000 seats are needed. “We’ll definitely need more support,” he said.

Committee Co-Chair Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut said members had learned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had approved the use of funds through the federal nutritional program for low-income women and children (the Women, Infants, and Children program) to pay for lead testing.

(202) 662-8736