House panel: State, federal failures caused Flint

Melissa Nann Burke

Washington — After a year-long investigation, House Oversight chairman Jason Chaffetz has concluded the Flint water crisis resulted from failures at all levels of government, including a federal regulatory framework “so outdated it sets up states to fail.”

In two letters released Friday, the Utah Republican blamed “significant problems” at Gov. Rick Snyder’s Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and “unacceptable delays” at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Chaffetz cited a review of thousands of documents, as well as witness interviews and a series of hearings in February in March.

The letters to the chairmen of the U.S. House committees on Appropriations, and Energy and Commerce included a recommendation to examine any ambiguities in the oversight provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The letters appeared to close the committee’s investigation by the GOP majority.

Chaffetz also advised that the EPA’s inspector general should look into why the agency has delayed for years an update of the federal regulations that govern lead levels in drinking water.

Chaffetz outlined the state DEQ’s failure to require chemical additives to control corrosion of lead service lines when Flint changed its water source from the treated Detroit system to the Flint River. He also criticized the EPA’s attempt to dismiss EPA Region 5 water quality expert Miguel Del Torro as a rogue bureaucrat.

“MDEQ’s persistent refusal to acknowledge and respond to the emerging lead crisis throughout 2015 made the situation worse,” Chaffetz wrote.

He also highlighted an October report from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, which said the EPA had the authority and information necessary to force corrective action and protect public health in Flint seven months before it issued an emergency order to force action on the city’s lead contamination crisis.

“Congress put EPA in this role as a backstop in the event that a state or territory failed to provide safe drinking water,” Chaffetz wrote. “In this case, however, even the federal safeguard failed Flint’s residents.”

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, did not sign Chaffetz’s letters.

Instead, Cummings on Friday renewed his call for Snyder to turn over documents related to the committee’s investigation into the Flint water crisis, saying the Snyder administration has obstructed the panel’s work.

In a letter to Chaffetz, Cummings urged him to subpoena the Snyder administration and force it to produce the documents within 30 days.

“The governor has refused to provide — or even search for — key documents,” Cummings wrote. “As a result, the Committee is still unable to answer critical questions about what the Governor knew about the crisis as it unfolded, why he did not act on concerns about water quality, even while his inner circle sounded repeated alarms, and why families in Flint continue to subsist on bottled water almost a year after he declared an emergency.”

Snyder’s office said Friday it has provided the committee with “hundreds of thousands of pages” of records it requested.

“It has been nearly a year since Gov. Snyder declared a state of emergency, and we went to work fixing the problem, and that is where our focus remains,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said. “It’s not productive to spend time engaging in partisan political attacks from out-of-state politicians.

The committee says it has received only documents that the Snyder administration has produced for other investigations led by the FBI and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, and not what it has requested, a spokeswoman for Democratic staff said.

Cummings was also critical of Snyder earlier this year, saying 15 past and current members of his administration refused requests to sit for interviews or provide documents. He raised the issue in March when Snyder testified before the committee.

Cummings’s letter Friday said that, in multiple conversations with committee staff from both sides, Snyder’s attorneys have “defied” requests for documents and refused to conduct searches requested by the committee.

“They have repeatedly delayed responding to the committee, and they have treated the committee’s requests as an afterthought that they respond to only after addressing other inquiries that they view as higher priorities,” Cummings wrote.

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