EPA email: Let's not 'go out on a limb' for Flint

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came under withering criticism during a Tuesday congressional hearing for its failure to swiftly respond to the lead contamination of Flint’s water supply.

Former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman told the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that the agency did nothing wrong — a statement that was derided by Republicans.

“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 told the committee.

The EPA’s Midwest agency repeatedly urged Michigan officials to act faster on beginning anti-corrosion treatment of Flint River water, she said, but the state was slow to respond.

The testimony elicited criticism from Virginia Tech University water expert Marc Edwards, who labeled the agency’s inaction as “willful blindness,” emphasizing the EPA has “never apologized” for its failures.

“EPA had everything to do with creating Flint,” Edwards told lawmakers. “To this day, they have not apologized for what they did in Flint, Michigan. ... I guess working for a government agency means never having to say you’re sorry.”

In his opening statement, Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, upbraided Hedman for her management of the EPA’s Region 5 and quoted from an email among Region 5 staffers about Flint.

“We’ve included information on Flint’s financial practices, as we think Susan needs to be aware,” Debbie Baltazar, chief of the Region 5 Water Division’s State and Tribal Programs Branch, wrote in late September.

“Perhaps she already knows all this, but I’m not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for. At least without a better understanding of where all that money went.”

Chaffetz told reporters, “They didn’t know if they wanted to take the time, effort or money to help the people of Flint. ... The person who responds next in the email says, ‘I concur.’ ”

According to emails obtained by The News, Region 5 employees were discussing whether Flint could redirect certain federal funds usually used for wellhead protection to pay for in-home water filtration for Flint. The EPA officials said offering such assistance to Flint would send the wrong message to other cities that better managed their water fees.

Hedman criticized

Showing up a bit late, Hedman testified on a panel that included former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and Darnell Earley, one of Flint’s emergency managers.

Chaffetz slammed Hedman’s oversight of the Chicago-based Region 5, saying she missed multiple chances to address the water crisis and created a culture that allowed retaliation against whistle-blowers.

He called Hedman’s contention that the EPA responded as swiftly as it could have under the law “laughable.”

He also took aim at EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who is scheduled to testify Thursday, saying she continues to “shift blame” and accept “no culpability whatsoever.” The agency still has not produced all the Flint records the committee requested, he said.

Flint’s water problems stem from an April 2014 switch in the city’s supply from treated water from Lake Huron to untreated water from the Flint River. The untreated water caused aging water lines to leach lead into the drinking water supply.

Hedman said she resigned Feb. 1 in part because the crisis occurred on her watch and 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 downplayed a memo by Region 5 water quality expert Miguel Del Toral that raised concerns about Flint’s water.

“I did not sit on the sidelines, and I did not downplay any concerns raised by EPA scientists or apologize for any memos they wrote,” Hedman told the committee. “In fact, I repeatedly asked for a final memo about lead in a form that EPA could publicly release.”

She said when a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Brad Wurfel, attacked Del Toral as a “rogue employee,” she called to complain to the DEQ’s director.

“What happened in Flint should not have happened anywhere in United States, and I was horrified that it happened in my region, the Great Lakes Region. I thought — and still think — that resigning was the honorable thing to do,” Hedman said, her voice shaking.

“Although I have left government service, I have not stopped worrying about the people of Flint.”

State ‘slow to deliver’

Hedman said 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 said she offered technical help to then-Flint Mayor 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 then the state was “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 said.

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, pressed Hedman: “Do you actually think EPA had nothing to do with the crisis in Flint?”

“No,” she replied.

Walberg also asked why Hedman didn’t take “emergency action” sooner as authorized under federal law. She said she received legal advice that such a move would be difficult.

Walberg turned to Edwards, the Virginia Tech water expert who helped uncover the water problems in Flint, asking how soon Hedman should have taken action “according to the code of law and to human decency, as well?”

Edwards said, “I don’t know law but, as a human being, she should have told people immediately.”

Hedman continually downplayed the EPA’s role in the crisis, telling lawmakers, “I don’t think anyone at the EPA did anything wrong, but I do believe we could have done more.”

After the hearing, Edwards said he found it “very frustrating to see the lack of accountability.”

“We’re going to need a bipartisan effort to get that fixed — and we have to get it fixed,” he said. “Until we do, no one is safe in this country with agencies that value loyalty to the agency before loyalty to the public.”

Walling, in his testimony, said he’s disappointed that EPA didn’t help Flint more. He asked Hedman about the internal memo by the Region 5’s 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.

“We now know we were getting bad information and worse water,” Walling told the committee.

Chaffetz also criticized Hedman, who last summer “dismissed and downplayed this memo, calling it a ‘preliminary draft’ and asserting ‘it would be premature to draw any conclusions.’ ”

He noted it wasn’t until Jan. 21 — nearly seven months after Del Toral’s memo — that the EPA issued an emergency order citing “imminent and substantial endangerment exists” with regard to the high levels of lead in the Flint water supply.

“How many more people were poisoned in those seven months? How many illnesses were worsened in those seven months?” Chaffetz said at the hearing.

In connection with the hearing, Chaffetz on Tuesday released several emails obtained from the EPA, including one from Del Toral to a group of recipients at Region 5 on Sept. 22, 2015, following a Flint pediatrician’s study finding high blood levels in Flint children.

“I am very upset about this because I told people this was going to be the outcome,” Del Toral wrote. “I watched this movie before in Washington, D.C., and we are heading down the exact same path of denial and delay, and meanwhile the children are being irreparably damaged.”

Hedman’s answers about the EPA’s actions failed to satisfy some Republican lawmakers.

“Dr. Hedman, I’m sorry,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Georgia. “There’s a special place in hell for actions like this.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

Staff Writer Jim Lynch contributed.