Snyder, Obama water officials face scrutiny of Congress

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

The Snyder and Obama administrations face scrutiny this week about their roles in Flint’s lead-contaminated drinking water when Gov. Rick Snyder, one of his emergency managers as well as current and former federal environmental officials testify before a congressional committee.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is scheduled to hear testimony Tuesday from former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley. Under Earley’s oversight, the city officially switched from treated Lake Huron water to water from the Flint River, which ended up corroding aging service lines that leached lead into the water supply.

In an October commentary for The Detroit News, Earley wrote that the 2013 decision to switch Flint from the Detroit water system to a new regional water authority was “part of a long-term plan” also backed by then-Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz, Flint’s mayor, city council and Genesee Drain commissioner.

“It did not fall to me to question, second guess or invalidate the actions taken prior to my appointment,” he wrote.

The committee also will question former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, who told The Detroit News in January that her department knew as early as April 2015 about the lack of corrosion controls in Flint’s water supply but said her hands were tied in bringing the information to the public. Hedman resigned her position Feb. 1.

Snyder himself takes the hot seat Thursday, alongside Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy, who has vaguely defended her agency’s handling of the issue and called Hedman’s resignation “courageous.”

The Republican governor has apologized to Flint residents and “taken responsibility” for the actions undertaken by those who worked for him at the Michigan DEQ, Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said. Snyder has said he is now focused on fixing the problem.

Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, visited Flint for the first time Saturday and said he is expecting “a candid assessment of where we’ve been and where we need to go.”

The eyes of Michigan residents will be watching Snyder’s performance Thursday, and the committee will be prepared to target his most vulnerable spots, said John Truscott, a Lansing-based public relations expert and former spokesman for three-term Republican Gov. John Engler.

“It’s obviously very high stakes,” Truscott said. “ ... Many of the members will be more interested in hearing themselves talk than in hearing what the governor has to say.”

Committee focus on how, why

The committee is expected to focus on how and why the crisis occurred, the government responses to it and what changes can be made to prevent something similar from happening again.

The Republicans have demonstrated particular interest in how the EPA implements the Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint and other U.S. cities. While in Flint on Saturday, Chaffetz called the actions of the EPA there intolerable.

Critics such as Virginia Tech water quality expert Marc Edwards, who also will testify Tuesday, have said Hedman showed no urgency in addressing Flint’s water problems. He has noted she quashed a lead-contamination warning contained in an internal EPA memo in June 2015 from Region 5 water quality expert Miguel Del Toral.

The Democrats plan to focus on the role of Snyder and his top aides. They have indicated they want to know who decided to switch to the Flint River, Snyder’s knowledge of the plan to use the river water, and the warnings his office received after the switchover.

The minority party is also looking for ways to keep the spotlight on Flint after this week’s hearings, so the city and the victims are not forgotten after national media coverage fades.

The House oversight panel held a Feb. 3 hearing including Keith Creagh, the chief of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the head of EPA’s water office.

Democrats urged Chaffetz to invite Snyder to that hearing, but he didn’t. Snyder “volunteered” to testify a couple weeks later.

“I don’t believe anybody wants to testify under these circumstances. I think he saw the writing on the wall that he was going to have to,” said Susan Demas, publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.

Edwards, Walling to appear

Tuesday’s panel includes former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and Edwards, the Virginia Tech engineering professor who helped bring public attention to the Flint crisis after testing for lead at residential homes. Edwards now works with the city of Flint on water testing and lead pipe issues.

Last week, the committee interviewed Dan Wyant, former chief of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and Jerry Ambrose, who served as Flint’s emergency manager from January to April 2015. The committee was also hoping to interview Kurtz, another former Flint emergency manager.

Lead contamination of the city’s water can be traced to corrosion of the lead pipes that occurred after Flint’s water source was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014.

State officials did not require Flint to treat the river water with anti-corrosion chemicals. The EPA has said it repeatedly and urgently prodded the state behind the scenes to properly treat Flint’s water.

“Bureaucrats in Michigan were busy checking off boxes instead of using common sense, and when water experts at the EPA tried to speak out, they were silenced by their managers,” Adler said.

“Had the bureaucrats at the state and federal level done their jobs correctly, the water would have been treated correctly and the protective coating in the pipes would never have been corroded and the lead wouldn’t be in the water.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736