Panel hears Michigan's 'lessons' in Flint

Keith Laing and Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Washington — House lawmakers failed to probe Michigan’s top health official Wednesday about why a Flint-area Legionnaires’ outbreak wasn’t publicized until January, a reflection of a largely non-confrontational congressional hearing.

The hearing, scheduled by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, was billed as focusing on “impacts and lessons learned” from the Flint water crisis.

It was a far cry from three previous House Oversight committee hearings where Democrats and Republicans sparred with state and federal officials as well as called for the resignations of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy.

“I’ve said before and will say again: I’m not interested in finger pointing,” Upton said.

So while Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon was making his first public comments in months on the Flint water crisis, neither Lyon nor lawmakers addressed the outbreak of 91 Legionnaires’ disease cases resulting in 12 deaths that occurred when the city used Flint River water.

Lyon left the hearing through a back door after his testimony concluded and was not available for media questions.

Republicans and Democrats alike mostly focused on what Michigan and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials are doing to prevent another Flint, where untreated, corrosive Flint River water leached high levels of lead into the drinking water.

Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator in EPA’s Office of Water, said the agency is looking at requiring lead results to be posted publicly to keep communities better informed. But a proposed rule on the water testing isn’t expected until next year, he said.

Disputes on lead water testing between the state and EPA happened behind closed door and only came to the surface through Freedom of Information requests.

EPA considers new rule

Beauvais said the federal agency is “carefully evaluating this input and the national experience in implementing the current rule – including the events in Flint – to develop proposed improvements.”

He also told the panel the Flint water situation “underscores the need for urgent and sustained action – by federal, state, tribal and local governments, and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide – to address risks from lead in drinking water and to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

But the EPA’s 12-month timeline for new rules regarding public notification of municipal water problems was insufficient for Upton.

“If there was one message you could send up the chain is, we would like to have something maybe earlier than 2017,” he said. “That’s a long ways off. I would to think that maybe there can be a little extra push to try to get that so communities can figure out where they need to go.”

Upton was largely complimentary of the Obama administration’s effort thus far in Flint, a sharp contrast with House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s attacks what he considers EPA intransigence and blame-shifting.

“We really appreciate what you’ve done,” he said to Beauvais. “The directive that you’ve had from the president. Your weekly trips that are there. Your working with all layers of government. We appreciate your testimony today and what you’re trying to do; your expertise.”

Lyon focused primarily in his opening remarks on what his department is doing to prevent another outbreak of Legionella bacteria, but didn’t explain why the agency never informed the public about the 2014 and 2015 outbreaks.

He apologized for the Snyder administration’s initial handling of the Flint water crisis, saying “we know that we could have done better.

“My heart goes out to the families impacted and that’s why I’m here today,” Lyon said, adding that he has taken steps to make improvements to his agency’s handling of problems like the Flint water crisis.

“We have already taken steps to restructure areas within our department to better align programs with surveillance and to ensure local health issues such as the ones we are discussing today are quickly elevated for immediate follow up.”

The state’s Office of Auditor General and the health department’s inspector general are conducting a joint investigation into the department’s handling of the Legionnaires’ outbreak and the testing of Flint residents’ blood for elevated lead levels.

“We will address whatever shortcomings are identified by these reviews within my department and will properly address issues and factors that affected our response,” Lyon said.

Lead prevention targeted

Members of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee steered clear on targeting the Legionnaires' issue and instead focused on lead contamination problems in Flint.

Upton touted House-passed legislation in response to the Flint water crisis that would require public notification of excessive lead levels in drinking water in future situations that arise when federal water standards are violated.

“Communities across the country, mine included, are worried about water infrastructure issues,” he said. “And our bipartisan bill specifically calls on the EPA to help communities develop a strategic plan for dealing with emergencies like this before they happen.”

Upton acknowledged it would take more than a bill in Congress to restore public trust in Flint after the water crisis that has unfolded there.

“We cannot and we will not forgot those in Flint who have been impacted by this tragedy,” he said. “No amount of regrets or words can actually fix what’s broken – we need concrete action.”

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, told reporters during a break in the hearing that he fears “a picture is being created that things are under control.”

Kildee, who attended the hearinb but is not on the Energy and Commerce Committee, cited a recent finding from researchers that Flint residents are not using enough water to allow necessary chemical treatments to course through the city’s system. This is hindering efforts to get water up to safety standards in a community where residents are afraid to use their taps and loathe to pay for what comes out of them.

“My thought would be to just simply declare a water bill holiday on the days that they want people to flush and just let them go,” Kildee said of the treatment conundrum. “I don’t know enough about the science to know how often that has to happen, but it’s not going to happen if people have to pay out of their own pockets.”

On Monday, Lyon's welfare and health department said the Flint-area Legionnaires’ death count is now 12 out of 91 cases between June 2014 and November 2015 — a time frame that corresponds with Flint’s use of river water.

Lyon has remained mum about when he learned about the outbreak since his department is the subject of the new investigation. The governor’s office is still not entirely sure when top officials at the health department knew about the outbreak and what actions were taken, if any.

Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, acknowledged state, federal and local agencies didn't work cooperatively before the crisis but are now. He said government agencies need to share information with experts and the public.

The switch in April 2014 from the Detroit water system to the Flint River for Flint “took a technical approach to compliance with the federal Lead and Copper Rule without adequately addressing public concerns,” said Creagh, who took over the DEQ after the resignation of the agency’s former director, Dan Wyant, in December.

“One of the first lessons learned is that infrastructure changes are complex, especially in aging systems, and regulatory agencies need to engage with the experts and the public in a more meaningful way,” Creagh said.

Dr. Mona Hanna Attisha, the Hurley Medical Center researcher who established the presence of high lead levels in Flint children last year, said most of the funding that has been ear-marked to assist in the crisis is not recurring.

The needs, she said, go beyond simply repairing Flint’s damaged water distribution system. They include the need for sustained monitoring of public health in the years to come, so the impacts of lead exposure in children and adults is properly gauged and curbed.

“What we do in the zero to five-year-old range is the most important thing…,” she said. “We need funding for at least five to 10 years to address exposed children. We are grateful for that (currently-funded) year of funding, but it is not enough.”