Ex-Flint officials deflect blame in crisis

Melissa Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley defended his role in the city’s lead-contaminated water crisis, arguing in prepared congressional testimony released Monday that there was “overwhelming consensus” to use the Flint River as a temporary water source.

Earley is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on a panel that includes former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and the Environmental Protection Agency’s former Midwest Region 5 chief, Susan Hedman.

Democrats on the committee have asked who decided to use the Flint River instead of another source, such as the Detroit water system, while a new pipeline was built for the city to purchase water from the Karegnondi Water Authority. The untreated river water caused aging water lines to leach lead into the drinking supply.

Earley, a former Saginaw city manager and Detroit Public Schools emergency manager, said the Flint City Council, Mayor Dayne Walling and city staff “pushed” for using river water. He said the state also approved the idea along with his predecessor, former Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz, who signed off on the concept in a June 26, 2013, order.

Darnell Earley: The man in power during Flint switch

“Before I served as emergency manager, there was already overwhelming consensus that the Flint River would be used as an interim water source during construction of the new KWA plant,” he wrote in prepared remarks released by the committee.

Earley said the “overall decision” favored relying on the river exclusively over a proposed blend of river and Lake Huron water because the river had been used as a capable back-up supply for decades and had been consistently tested and evaluated during that time.

Mayor Walling, in his prepared testimony, remembers history differently, saying he opposed the idea of using the Flint River as an interim water source until the pipeline was constructed, despite “repeated blatantly false claims” by Earley and Snyder’s office.

Walling said he internally expressed concerns about the planned switch to river water, including the community’s perception of the river as polluted, the short timeline to make the switch, and the “limited staff capacity and inexperience” of the city’s leadership in the Department of Public Works in running a full-time water treatment facility.

Walling said his recommendations and those of other elected officials and community leaders were “discounted” by emergency managers and Snyder.

“The emergency managers and and the state decided to switch Flint to the river,” wrote Walling, who lost his re-election bid to Karen Weaver in November.

“This follows a pattern of deflection by the state in regards to responsibility for Flint’s water problems that has become apparent in seeing the exchanges taking place among state employees through the release of the governor’s office and state agency emails.”

Earley served as Flint’s emergency manager from October 2013 until January 2015.

Earlier this year, Earley balked at testifying before Congress. His attorney later said the committee’s subpoena was delivered only a day ahead of the first congressional hearing on Flint on Feb. 3, and Earley couldn’t make preparations to appear in Washington in time.

In his testimony, Earley says he and others were “grossly misled” by water experts at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency “to devastating effects,” but that it was “more than reasonable” for him to rely on the experts available to him.

“We relied on the experts to verify that the water would not pose any threat to the community. The experts failed all of us,” he wrote.

“Despite lacking the necessary water treatment expertise, I now wish that I had been more probative in my approach in delving deeper into the explanations I was receiving about what was being done, what needed to be done, and when it should be done.”

Earley urges the committee to call forward “all the decision makers,” including other former emergency managers, to testify. He wants federal lawmakers to continue investigatory hearings on the Flint crisis to “get to the whole truth.”

“Not one day goes by in which I do not think about, and pray for, those afflicted families in Flint, and at no time during my tenure as emergency manager did I ever wake up and consciously decide to deny them, or otherwise ignore their right to quality drinking water,” Earley wrote.

Walling’s testimony notes that he requested technical support from the White House in February 2015 and was connected with the EPA’s Midwest Region 5 chief Susan Hedman, whom he hoped would serve as a “double check” on the information coming from the Michigan DEQ, emergency managers and the city personnel who reported to them.

“I am now disappointed that the EPA did not do more to assist us in Flint, and that reassurances about the review process were made when there were warning signs noticed by EPA staff back to the beginning of 2015,” Walling wrote.

He noted that he asked Hedman about an internal memo by EPA water quality expert Miguel Del Toral warning about lead contamination of Flint’s water, and was told that a review process was underway, and the city would be alerted by the state of any new requirements.

“This was another missed opportunity to correct the problems sooner,” Walling wrote. “In retrospect, it is clear that information was being parceled out before it reached those of us elected officials and community members in Flint, even after the emergency managers were not in place.”

Hedman, whose prepared testimony was released late Monday, claims she learned of the lack of corrosion-control treatment for Flint’s water on June 30, 2015 — about 14 months after the city started using river water.

She says she offered technical help to Walling the next day, and her agency released its first statement the next week urging residents to contact their water utility for lead testing.

She said Michigan DEQ officials three weeks later agreed with the EPA’s recommendation to require Flint to implement corrosion controls, but the state was then “slow to deliver on the agreement.”

“... While I used the threat of enforcement action to motivate the state and city to move forward, we found that the enforcement options available to us were of limited utility last fall, due to the unique circumstances of this case,” Hedman wrote, noting the treatment was ultimately implemented with the help of the EPA Task Force in Flint.

“The bad news is that this problem should never have happened in the first place, and I need to remind you: EPA had nothing at all to do with that.”

Hedman said she resigned Feb. 1 in part because the crisis occurred on her watch and in part because of “false allegations about me” published in early January, “which EPA was unable to correct on the record before they began to damage the agency’s ability to perform critical work in Flint.” 

Hedman said she was referring to allegations that she did little on the sidelines of the crisis and downplayed Del Toral’s memo.

Virginia Tech water quality expert Marc Edwards is also expected to testify Tuesday, but an advance of his remarks was not released.


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