House Democrats focus on Snyder’s role in Flint crisis

Jonathan Oosting, and Keith Laing

Democrats on a Congressional committee examining the Flint water crisis focused their questions Tuesday on the actions of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in anticipation of his Thursday testimony.

Snyder’s initial response to water quality issues in Flint and his use of budget-cutting state appointees in a city with financial debt issues were common themes during the three and-a-half hour hearing, which featured former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and former Mayor Dayne Walling.

“It took a public health crisis of this proportion, with thousands of victims, for Flint finally to receive the state funds it needed to protect its citizens, right?” said Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pennsylvania. “So I wonder what all this says about the governor of Michigan.”

Democratic Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield repeatedly asked Earley if he had held any public hearings to hear resident concerns over water quality. When he demurred, she blasted the state’s law that allows the appointment of emergency managers with the power to rewrite labor contracts and change operations.

“When you report only to a bottom line and the governor, the voices of the people are eliminated in the process,” Lawrence said.

The governor, who was still in Michigan, defended himself Tuesday on Twitter, disputing committee member suggestions the state tried to save money by not adding phosphates to the water.

“There was never a decision made by the state to save $ in Flint by not adding corrosion control,” he wrote. “This was a failure of regulatory agencies.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, suggested past Snyder aides were not fully cooperating with committee Democrats who have attempted to interview key players in the Flint crisis.

Former DEQ Director Dan Wyant, who resigned in December, “was a very difficult witness who evaded many of our questions,” Cummings said. Snyder’s former Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore “refused to talk to us.”

The Maryland Democrat asked Walling about a September 2015 email Muchmore sent to the governor and other key staffers. In it, Muchmore suggested Walling’s request for $30 million in state aid to address water issues was a “CYA effort” motivated by the mayor’s election, which Walling would go on to lose in November.

“It is sickening, all of it,” Cummings said.

Snyder was defended at the hearing by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, whose independent research helped expose the Flint lead contamination crisis.

Edwards was highly critical of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, saying he could not think of “a single thing” that the state agency did right. But Snyder “has taken responsibility for what occurred,” Edwards told lawmakers.

“Certainly he’s guilty of not listening to Flint residents, and certainly he’s guilty of being overly trusting of MDEQ and EPA, but at present, he’s say he wants to be part of the solution, and he’s actively engaged in this,” he said.

Snyder has pointed to failures at all level of government in the run-up to the Flint crisis, including the state environmental department, which did not ensure the city add corrosion control treatments when it began using Flint River water in April 2014. The harsh water damaged aging service lines and leached lead into the city’s tap water.

The city’s switch to the Flint River occurred under the watch of Earley, but the former emergency manager downplayed his role in the crisis, telling lawmakers the decision to use the local river water was made before he took office.

“I believe I have been unjustly persecuted, vilified and smeared both personally and professionally,” Earley said.

Earley was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in October 2013, seven months after the Flint City council had voted in favor of a plan to move from the Detroit water system to a new regional pipeline. The resolution did not reference the Flint River as an interim source.

The decision to join the Karegnondi Water Authority was approved by then-Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz, who subsequently signed a June 2013 order to place the city’s treatment plant into operation using Flint River water as a primary drinking source until the new pipeline was online.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, grilled Earley over his role as a state-appointed emergency manager, repeatedly asking him whether part of his job was to question decisions made prior to his tenure.

“I’m trying to draw a distinction between responsibility and blame,” Earley told Amash, deflecting blame but acknowledging responsibility among himself and other Flint officials.

Walling agreed with Earley that the decision to use the Flint River water was made by Kurtz, who he said adopted a two-year budget that included equipment anticipating the switch.

But Walling told The Detroit News after the hearing he thinks Earley could have done more to ensure the city’s public works department was operating safely. Kurtz should testify too, he said.

Earley said he and his staff addressed early concerns with fecal and total coliform, trihalomethanes and E. coli bacteria in Flint water. But concerns at that time did not include lead levels, he said, and lead never came up in water quality meetings with state officials.

“We were grossly misled by experts at MDEQ and EPA,” Earley told lawmakers. “While I don’t have any great pride in knowing that, I do think it’s important.”

Earley, in written testimony submitted to the committee, said the state environmental department missed an opportunity to review corrosion concerns when General Motors stopped using the river water in October 2014.

Asked about those comments Tuesday, Earley said regulators told the city that chemical water treatments “were hurting car parts, but not hurting humans.”

Cummings told Earley he “nearly vomited” over that testimony.

Nakiya Wakes, who lives on Flint’s north side, flew with liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan to Washington for the hearing. Her two children have tested positive for lead exposure, said Wakes, who blames the contaminated water for her July 2015 miscarriage.

“I’m here to get justice and to make sure our voices are heard,” said Wakes, who carried a series of water bills and pictures of her children, 7-year-old Jaylon and 16-year-old Nashauna.

“My son has had behavioral problems. He’s been suspended from school over 50 times. He’s in the first grade, doesn’t even want to attend school anymore,” she said.

The U.S House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is scheduled to reconvene Thursday, when Snyder and EPA Administer Gina McCarthy are expected to testify.

“There’s certainly a lot of finger-pointing,” Cummings told reporters after the hearing. “The person I think might have the most responsibility is certainly the governor.”