Snyder, EPA chief McCarthy urged to resign over Flint

Jonathan Oosting, and Melissa Nann Burke

Washington — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and federal Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy faced scathing criticism and calls to resign Thursday during a combative congressional hearing on the Flint water contamination crisis.

Gov. Rick Snyder, (R-MI), listens to members comments during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, about the Flint, Michigan water crisis, on Capitol Hill March 17, 2016 in Washington, DC.

Democrats on the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee concentrated their fire on Snyder, who acknowledged state failures. The GOP governor told lawmakers that “career bureaucrats” lacked common sense when they didn’t require corrosion control chemicals in Flint water.

Committee Republicans focused their barbs at McCarthy, who refused under questioning to apologize or admit the federal agency did anything wrong in failing to make the lead contamination public before late September.

“As governor of a state that failed and poisoned its own people, don’t you have a moral responsibility to resign?” Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pennsylvania, asked Snyder.

Boyle was one of at least four Democrats, including ranking Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who called on Snyder to leave office during the nearly four-hour hearing. Television reporters asked the Republican governor if he would do so as he left the committee room without taking any media questions.

Cummings suggested that if Snyder had been the CEO of a children’s toy company that sold toys with lead “he would be hauled up on criminal charges.”

“The board of directors would throw him out and shareholders would revolt,” he said.

Snyder told lawmakers he was committed to fixing the Flint crisis. He chastised “quote unquote experts” in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, some of whom have resigned, been fired or suspended.

House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz noted Snyder had accepted responsibility for Flint’s contamination while McCarthy and the Obama administration’s EPA have not apologized for failing to alert the public about the health crisis.

The Utah Republican said the federal agency has fired no one over the scandal.

Chaffetz pressed McCarthy on whether her agency did anything wrong.

“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.”

Chaffetz then joined at least two other colleagues in calling for McCarthy to resign.

“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,” the chairman said. “If you were going to do the courageous thing, then you, too, should step down.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testifies before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, Thursday, March 17, 2016, to look into the circumstances surrounding high levels of lead found in many residents' tap water in Flint, Michigan. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

EPA chief blames state

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 all levels. 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,” Chaffetz said in his opening comments.

Gov’s timelines challenged

Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, agreed 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,” 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 controls.

Snyder also conceded “it would be a fair conclusion” to say Michigan’s emergency manager law failed in Flint with respect to the water crisis.

“In this instance ... you wish they would have asked more questions,” he said, referencing a series of state appointees who ran Flint before, during and after the city began using river water in April 2014.

He was grilled over the state law by Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Virginia, who attributed the Flint water crisis to a “failure of a philosophy of governance” advocated by Snyder.

The governor acknowledged earlier administration discussions about concerns with the odor and color of Flint water, but he maintained he did not know about elevated lead levels until shortly before he announced an action plan in October 2015. He insisted that he did not learn about an outbreak of deadly Legionnaires’ disease until January 2016.

Democrats challenged Snyder’s timelines, pointing to media coverage of resident complaints and internal emails suggesting some of the governor’s top aides were aware of both issues much earlier.

“I’ve had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies,” Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania told the governor.

“… Plausible deniability only works when it’s plausible, and I’m not buying any of this that you didn’t know until October 2015. You were not in a medically induced coma for a year.”

‘A sad day in this country’

Michigan U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, a Tipton Republican, asked Snyder about a series of Legionnaires’ emails that former DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel sent to the governor’s communications team and top aide Harvey Hollins in March 2015.

Walberg asked Snyder if he was aware that information reached “the highest levels of the executive office,” but Snyder said he did not recall any conversations about Legionnaires’ at that time.

The state health department “should have done more to escalate the issue and get it visible to the public,” said Snyder, who recently called for a joint investigation into the department.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, stopped short of joining committee Democrats in calling for Snyder’s resignation, but told reporters during a short hearing recess it is hard to believe the governor did not know earlier about the lead and Legionnaires’ issues.

Snyder sounded like “either a governor who is loose with the facts or is so disengaged with the operation of state government that he contributed to this problem,” said Kildee, who attended the hearing.

Chaffetz applauded Snyder for taking responsibility for the crisis and vowing to fix it. On calls for Snyder to resign, he said, “That’s up to the people of Michigan to deal with that.”

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, a Southfield Democrat, read Snyder a lengthy list of news headlines regarding Flint water problems that began in 2014, again questioning what he knew and when he knew it.

“This is a sad day in this country,” Lawrence said.

The governor reiterated that he was aware of early water quality concerns but not elevated lead levels. He cited a late September 2015 briefing he received in which state health and environmental departments remained “dismissive” of findings from independent researchers.

“This is a tragedy that never should have happened,” Snyder said, agreeing with Lawrence. “... I kick myself everyday asking what more questions could I have asked and what we should have done.”

Scores make trip from Flint

About 150 Flint residents and activists made overnight bus trips to Washington, D.C., where they lined the hallways of the Rayburn House Office building hoping for a seat in the hearing or an overflow room.

Resident Tammy Brewer said she has large sores on her body and has been losing her hair, problems she attributes to showering in the water.

Now “I try to rinse off with warm bottled water and pray,” Brewer said.

LeeAnne Walters, a part-time Flint resident whose home tested positive for elevated levels of lead, 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,” Walters told reporters after the hearing.

She disputed McCarthy’s testimony that a Region 5 water quality expert flagged a a localized lead issue. “At that point they knew there was no corrosion control” in the river water, Walters said.

Back in Flint, 18-year-old college student Layla Meilier said she is infuriated by the water crisis and wants solutions.

“I’m very interested to see what the punishment will be for the people responsible,” Meilier said Thursday. “… On our part, I guess we also need to forgive the government for screwing up. I guess it’s a two-way street.”


Freelance writer Jacob Carah contributed.