Snyder’s hearing plan: Push for lead pipeline removal

Jonathan Oosting and Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Gov. Rick Snyder plans to push for a national discussion on removing lead water pipelines in aging American cities when he testifies before a congressional committee investigating Flint’s water contamination crisis.

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, accepted Friday Snyder’s request to testify before the committee on a panel with with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. A date has not yet been set for the second hearing, which follows a Feb. 3 session in which the GOP governor was not called to testify.

“There’s an opportunity here that we can seize to address this problem, or at least start having everyone talk about it,” Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said Friday. “Because this is not just a Flint problem.”

The committee’s ranking Democrat viewed Snyder’s sudden willingness to testify with skepticism.

“Contrary to Gov. Snyder’s recent claim that he requested this ‘opportunity to testify,’ the reality is that he is finally bowing to mounting public pressure to answer questions before Congress about the central and critical role his administration played in this man-made disaster,” U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said in a statement.

Snyder announced his desire to testify before the committee Friday morning after his office publicly disclosed more than 20,000 pages of state government records and emails related to Flint’s 2014 switch to Flint River water.

On Thursday, Snyder called Chaffetz and offered to travel to Washington, D.C., for a future hearing. The governor wants to answer questions about what led to Flint’s water contamination crisis as well as highlight the need for Congress to take action on lead abatement issues looming in other cities, Murray said.

“There needs to be a national infrastructure discussion around this,” Murray said. “There have been problems in other cities.”

Snyder declined an invitation to answer questions Wednesday before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. He had already been scheduled to present his fiscal year 2017 budget proposal on the same day as the hearing.

“I am glad to see that Gov. Snyder has agreed to testify under oath about the Flint water crisis after declining multiple requests to appear before Congress,” U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said Friday in a statement. “The governor’s administration and his state-appointed emergency financial managers created this crisis and he must answer questions so that the whole truth can be found.”

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, the committee’s lone Michigan Democrat, also welcomed the development.

“I am thankful Gov. Rick Snyder has finally recognized the need to step up and aid Congress in the search for truth and justice on behalf of the city of Flint, and the children and families who will forever be scarred by this manmade disaster,” said Lawrence, D-Southfield.

“...The people of Flint and the American public deserve to know the following: Who made the decision to shift the water system from Detroit to the Flint river, why did they ignore longstanding evidence of problems with the Flint water system and when did they become aware of the massive amounts of lead being consumed by unsuspecting residents following the April 25th, 2014 shift?”

Snyder was not called for the Feb. 3 hearing that featured Keith Creagh, who has been director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality since Dan Wyant resigned in late December over the agency’s failure to require corrosion control chemicals in Flint’s water that would have prevented lead contamination.

The hearing also heard testimony from Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, who 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.

“The people of Flint have suffered because they were failed by all levels of government, and so it is understandable that there are questions at all levels of government,” Snyder said in a statement. “In Michigan we are learning a great deal from this crisis and I am hopeful the federal government also will use this as an opportunity to examine health and safety protections in place, assess infrastructure needs, and avoid this type of crisis in the future.”

Chaffetz has been critical of the EPA’s oversight of Flint’s drinking water safety.

“We appreciate Gov. Snyder’s willingness to appear before the committee and look forward to hearing from EPA Administrator McCarthy as well,” the chairman said. “Their perspectives on this issue are important as we seek to ensure a crisis of this magnitude never occurs in another American city.”

A second panel of invited witnesses includes former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, whose controversial July 1 email to then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling stalled efforts by an EPA water quality expert warning that the city’s water likely was contaminated by lead.

That expert, Miguel Del Toral, is among the four other prospective witnesses who include former Flint emergency manager and current Detroit Public Schools emergency manager Darnell Earley; Walling; and Virginia Tech professor and water testing expert Marc Edwards, who currently works with the city of Flint.

Lawrence’s office released a copy of the Feb. 3 subpoena served to Earley requesting that he attend a Feb. 25 deposition in Washington, D.C. The committee didn’t indicate whether the hearing would nullify the need for Earley to give the deposition.

“The diverse and insightful panel of witnesses assembled will shed light on many of our remaining questions and help us propose reforms to the authorizing committees,” Chaffetz said.

Hedman resigned Feb. 1, an act that McCarthy called “courageous” Thursday under questioning by U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, during a House Agriculture Committee hearing. His 4th Congressional District borders Genesee County.

McCarthy defended her agency Thursday while noting that she has never said the EPA did everything right.

“What I said was a situation like Flint should never have happened,” she said.

But at the Feb. 3 hearing, Edwards faulted not only state DEQ bureaucrats for failing to add corrosion control chemicals into the city’s water but also Hedman, who last summer discredited a key draft report 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.

Earley initially declined to testify because his lawyer said the subpoena was served the night before the Feb. 3 hearing. Attorney A. Scott Bolden said more than a week ago that Earley “will be willing to appear.”

A House Oversight spokesman said, “The committee expects all of the witnesses listed to testify.”

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