House Oversight chairman urges EPA chief to resign

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — During a contentious Thursday hearing, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz and other lawmakers told the head of the Environmental Protection Agency she should resign because her agency mishandled the lead contamination of Flint’s water.

The Utah Republican noted the federal agency has fired no one over the scandal compared with Michigan’s Snyder administration, where two environmental officials resigned and one career civil servant was terminated.

“You failed,” Chaffetz said while questioning EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

“You had the opportunity. You had the presence. You had the authority. You had the backing of the federal government. And you did not act when you had the chance. If you were going to do the courageous thing, then you, too, should step down.”

Chaffetz pressed McCarthy on whether her agency did anything wrong, then balked at her response.

“I don’t know if we did everything right. That’s the challenge that I’m facing,” she responded. “I would have hoped we would have been more aggressive.”

McCarthy testified Thursday before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on a panel with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

The EPA chief said her agency was misled by Michigan environmental officials for months, leaving her agency with “insufficient” information to indicate a systemic lead problem in Flint until last summer.

“Looking back on Flint, from Day One, the state provided our regional office with confusing, incomplete and incorrect information,” McCarthy said. “Their interactions with us were intransigent, misleading and contentious.”

She later added, “Up until today, they continue to drag their feet.”

At that point, Snyder jumped in, saying, “I’m sorry Mr. Chairman, but you can only take so much.”

He pointed to emails among EPA and Michigan officials talking about their partnership on Flint and what actions they could legally take in response.

“When I read these things, I’m ready to get sick. We needed urgency, we needed action and they kept on talking,” Snyder said.

“Why didn’t Administrator McCarthy just get on the phone and call me? This is technical compliance again. This is the culture that got us into this mess in the first place. Where is common sense?”

Chaffetz called the Flint crisis a failure at every level. He highlighted an email among Midwest regional EPA officials last fall suggesting that, because of Flint’s fiscal mismanagement, “maybe Flint isn’t who we should go out on a limb for.”

“Are you kidding me? Of all the communities out there, Flint is the No. 1 place that they should have been going out on a limb for. It’s depressed economically, they’re going through their own economic crisis,” Chaffetz said in his opening comments.

“I’ve got to tell you, the lack of action here — the lack of letting people know, so they can make an informed decision, is very concerning.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking Democrat on the committee, agreed that the EPA should have done more.

“Republicans are desperately trying to blame everything on the EPA. Let’s be clear. This is not just on the EPA. This is much bigger than that,” Cummings said in his opening statement, noting the delays in response by Michigan officials.

“The EPA should have snatched control out of Gov. Snyder’s hands even sooner than it did.”

McCarthy attributed the problems in Flint to a state-appointed emergency manager deciding to switch to an untreated water supply in April 2014, and then Michigan approving the move without requiring chemical treatment to keep the water from corroding the pipes, allowing lead to leach into the city’s drinking water.

“While EPA did not cause the lead problem, in hindsight we should not have been so trusting of the state for so long when they provided us with overly simplistic assurances of technical compliance, rather than substantive responses to our increasingly growing concerns,” she said.

McCarthy said the EPA repeatedly urged the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to address the lack of corrosion control but “missed the opportunity late summer to quickly get EPA’s concerns on the public’s radar screen,” she said. “That I regret.”

Susan Hedman, the EPA’s Midwest Region 5 administrator, told The Detroit News in January that her staff learned of the lack of corrosion controls in Flint in April 2015. Instead of forcing the DEQ to take immediate corrective action, Hedman said she sought a legal opinion about whether her agency had the authority to do so.

The EPA would not officially mandate the use of corrosion controls until July.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, asked McCarthy whether she would have fired Hedman if she hadn’t resigned Feb. 1.

McCarthy replied that she didn’t have to make that decision because Hedman resigned. “I thought it was the right step for her to take,” McCarthy said.

Hedman testified Tuesday before the committee, saying EPA did nothing wrong. She resigned Feb. 1 in part because the crisis occurred on her watch and because of what she called “false allegations” about her published in early January that EPA couldn’t quickly correct before damaging the agency’s efforts to perform critical work in Flint.

Hedman 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.

McCarthy stressed that Del Toral’s memo warning about lead levels in Flint was limited to data from three homes in the same neighborhood and “because of the complexities of lead, we did not and could not” make a determination about a systemic lead problem in the city.

She said when EPA later learned the lead contamination was systemic, and that chemical treatment to prevent corrosion of service lines hadn’t been implemented, EPA told Michigan officials “you do it, or we do it.”

But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality “slow walked” that process, she said. “Miguel is a hero in this,” McCarthy said. “We were strong-armed, misled and kept at arm’s length.”

Chaffetz commented, “Wow. You still just don’t get it.”

He produced a July 2015 email among EPA and Michigan officials that contained conflicting takes on the recommendation for anti-corrosion treatment, with one official saying, “the idea to ask Flint to simply add phosphate may be premature.”

McCarthy noted the agency didn’t have the full water quality data at the time, and “that’s when we demanded and offered and begged” to be part of the Flint technical advisory committee, so it could weigh in on what method and type of treatment would be appropriate.

“It was not as easy as flipping a switch. It did not mean we didn’t need to require they do it,” she said. “The question was whether we were going to be premature in how best to get it done.”

Chaffetz said she was wrong to solely blame the state.

“I’m not trying to excuse (the state) whatsoever. But you’re trying to excuse everything for the EPA saying you told them to put phosphates in the water and they didn’t,” the chairman said.

Another EPA email from Nov. 3, 2015, by Peter Grevatt, director of the EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, acknowledged various interpretations of the federal Lead and Copper Rule and how that might have led to some confusion among state and local officials.

“They know they’re in trouble. They’re asking for help, and I’ve got email after email from the Environmental Protection Agency saying, you know what, maybe you should hold off because we’re not sure,” Chaffetz said to McCarthy.

“I’m not excusing (the state) at all, but you need to take some responsibility. You guys screwed up and you messed up 100,000 people’s lives. Ten thousand of those lives are 6 years old and younger, and you don’t take any responsibility. You don’t think you did anything wrong.”

McCarthy replied that she’d already communicated that EPA staff could have been more aggressive.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, also derided McCarthy for having “never taken accountability for any of the problems at the EPA.”

“Sir, I’m not trying to shift responsibility,” McCarthy said.

“Yes, you are. This whole hearing,” Gosar responded.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, R-Missouri, said it was ironic that Republicans so often slam the EPA for overreaching “at every possible turn.”

“Now, they criticize the EPA for not doing more when Governor Snyder fell down on the job.”

McCarthy highlighted actions she’s since taken to address the Flint problem, including ordering a review of Department of Environmental Quality and its ability to implement the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as asking EPA’s inspector general to investigate her agency’s response to the Flint crisis.

She also sent letters to every governor and state environmental and health commissioner in the United States, asking them to work with EPA on infrastructure investments, transparency, technology, oversight, risk assessment and public education.

LeeAnne Walters, whose home was among the three in Del Toral’s report, said she was disappointed in McCarthy’s testimony.

“We’ve been trying really hard on the ground to rebuild the trust between the agency and the people, and that was just demolished today after all the hard work we put in with the citizens. That’s very disheartening to me,” Walters told reporters after the hearing.

She disputed McCarthy’s testimony about Del Toral’s report flagging a localized issue.

“There’s no way it could have been localized if there was no corrosion control,” Walters said in an interview. “And at that point they knew there was no corrosion control.”

Committee Democrats on Thursday released a new email from Del Toral saying he wasn’t retaliated against by his EPA superiors by being forced to take ethics training — a charge raised by Republicans during Tuesday’s hearing.

“I was never required by anyone to take ethics training because of Flint or for any other reason other than the mandatory ethics training required to be taken annually by all EPA employees,” Del Toral said in the email.

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Detroit News Staff Writer Jim Lynch contributed