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Our Editorial: Congress right to press EPA on Flint

The Detroit News

Congress served precisely the role it should have in the U.S. House Oversight hearing Wednesday on the Flint water crisis. Members of Congress rightly pressed hard on the role the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have played, but didn’t, in protecting Flint residents.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the Oversight Committee, handled the various interests of committee members appropriately, while insisting on answers from the staffer the EPA sent to speak for the agency.

But more questions remain, both for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), Flint’s then-Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, the Snyder administration, EPA’s former Region 5 head Susan Hedman and even EPA administrator Gina McCarthy.

The EPA sent Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for its Office of Water, to testify before Congress on what has been the agency’s abysmal handling of the most significant public environmental health crisis in the U.S. in recent memory.

New to the job, he had little first-hand knowledge to draw on. When he was asked about an email from an EPA employee advising MDEQ officials on how to deny having seen the memo from EPA water expert Miguel Del Toral, Beauvais’ response was insufficient.

“I do not know why that email was sent,” Beauvais said. “We are looking into that.” As they should.

Emails previously made available show Del Toral was silenced by Hedman. It’s that question — why a federal agency didn’t act on information that water in a major U.S. city was contaminated — Congress must get to the bottom of.

One of Congress’ roles is to ensure federal agencies are performing correctly. The EPA is one of the largest federal agencies, and it’s completely appropriate the hearing spent a majority of its time investigating its shoddy performance in Flint.

The MDEQ put up Keith Creagh, the man now in charge of the embattled state agency, but he also wasn’t responsible for the missteps that took place over a year ago under someone else’s watch.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech researcher who studied Flint’s water on his own, was indispensable to the hearing. His truthfulness and nonpartisan approach to the systemic, multi-level government failure has been refreshing in a situation that quickly became politically polarized.

“Had it not been for people completely outside the system, those people in Flint would still be drinking this water to this day. That is a fact,” said Edwards, placing blame largely on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

As helpful as it was to hear from witnesses before the committee, the elephant in the room was those who weren’t there.

To that end, Chaffetz said his committee wants Hedman to give a deposition under oath to committee lawyers about her agency’s response to Flint. And he authorized U.S. marshals to find Earley and bring him before Congress. It’s also possible Snyder will be called before the committee. The governor should not wait for a subpoena. It is in his interest to project transparency.