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Congress grills Michigan governor, EPA head over Flint water crisis

March 17, 2016 at 7:26 PM EST
Flint, Michigan, earned a place in the spotlight again Thursday, as Congressional hearings on the city’s water crisis continued. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA administrator Gina McCarthy both faced strict scrutiny for their apparent failure to respond to the dire situation quickly enough. John Yang reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, was in the spotlight again today, this time at a hearing before Congress, where the question seemed to be, who is the most to blame for dangerous lead poisoning?

It was heated at times, and there were calls for resignations of top officials.

Correspondent John Yang begins.

MAN: Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will come to order.

JOHN YANG: Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy took the oath, settled into their seats, and the grilling began.

Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings started with Republican Snyder.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), Maryland: Governor Snyder has been described as running the state of Michigan like a business. There’s no doubt in my mind that, if a corporate CEO did what Governor Snyder’s administration has done, he would be hauled up on criminal charges.

JOHN YANG: An emergency manager appointed by Snyder’s administration switched Flint’s water supply to the Flint River in April 2014, in a bid to save money. But no corrosion control was added. That allowed lead from aging pipes to leach into drinking water for more than a year.

Snyder said today that Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality repeatedly assured him the water was safe, until last fall.

GOV. RICK SNYDER (R), Michigan: It was on October 1, 2015, that I learned that our state experts were wrong. Flint’s water had dangerous levels of lead. On that date, I took immediate action. Not a day or night goes by that this tragedy doesn’t weigh on my mind, the questions I should have asked, the answers I should have demanded, how I could have prevented this.

JOHN YANG: That wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy some on the committee.

REP. MATT CARTWRIGHT (D), Pennsylvania: Plausible deniability only works when it’s plausible, and I’m not buying that you didn’t know about any of this until October 2015. You weren’t in a medically induced coma for a year. And I have had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies.

JOHN YANG: Republican Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz laid blame mostly with the Environmental Protection Agency and its boss, Gina McCarthy.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), Utah: I am asking the questions.

GINA MCCARTHY, Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency: OK.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: Yes, OK. In February is when you first arrived on the scene, and it wasn’t until January of next year that you actually you did something. That’s the fundamental problem. Don’t look around like you’re mystified. That’s what happened. You didn’t take action. You didn’t. And you could have pulled that switch.

GINA MCCARTHY: We consistently took action from that point forward, consistently.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: There are a lot of people in this audience from Flint. Nobody believes that you took action. You had the presence, you had the authority, you had the backing of the federal government, and you didn’t act when you had the chance. And if you’re going to do the courageous thing, you too should step down.

JOHN YANG: McCarthy blamed the state for giving the EPA bad information and maintained she did everything within her legal authority to respond.

GINA MCCARTHY: We just couldn’t get a straight answer anywhere. People don’t deserve that out of their government. I will take responsibility for not pushing hard enough, but I will not take responsibility for causing this problem. It wasn’t EPA at the helm when this happened.

JOHN YANG: The issue of lead in water also affects communities from Ohio to North Carolina, from Mississippi to New Jersey. Governor Snyder today urged Congress to approve $220 million for replacing contaminated pipes in Flint and in other cities. And he said he wants Michigan to spend a similar amount.

PROTESTERS: No justice, no peace!

JOHN YANG: But some Flint residents who attended today’s hearing said that’s not good enough, given Michigan’s budget surplus of $575 million.

NAKIYA WAKES, Flint Resident: I was hearing stuff in Snyder’s testimony today. We was never told about any of this until January of 2016. He has ignored Flint and all warnings. Then he says that he has money put up for a rainy day fund. Well, it’s pouring. Where is the money at?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JOHN YANG: Lead levels in Flint’s water are dropping, but they still don’t meet federal drinking water standards. That means city residents will continue to use bottled water for the foreseeable future.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s pick up further on these questions of what mistakes were made and by whom in Flint, as well as growing concerns about the safety of water in other communities.

David Shepardson, a Michigan native, has been reporting on Flint and watching the latest developments for Reuters. And Marc Edwards, he is a civil and environmental engineer and professor at Virginia Tech University. He’s widely credited with helping to expose the Flint water problems. He testified before the same House committee earlier this week.

And we welcome you both.

David Shepardson, to you first.

You get the impression from listening to this hearing today that everybody involved bears some responsibility. Is that accurate?

DAVID SHEPARDSON, Reuters: I think everybody admits that things didn’t go well, i mean, the state, the local authorities.

And the EPA has probably a little bit different position, that they do not admit specific wrongdoing. All they admit, they didn’t act fast enough. In fact, the agency yesterday released about 1,200 pages of e-mails that show that, as far back as September, the administrator asked her deputies whether it was appropriate the intervene.

And she said that this could get big very quickly. So, certainly, the agency knew that this was a growing issue of concern, but they didn’t opt to take the step of issuing an emergency order to intervene until January of this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that, is there one individual or one agency that bears more responsibility than others?

DAVID SHEPARDSON: Well, I guess it depends on your point of view.

The main problem was that the state failed to add corrosion control to the water, and the EPA would say, and the state would agree, that they didn’t inform the EPA of this for months and months. And because of that, that catastrophic decision led to the ultimate poisoning of the water, but from there, depending on what political party you’re in, it really — the splitting of the blame depends on your point of view.

That’s really what the last two hearings have been largely about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s impossible to separate it from the politics, but we will try.

Professor Marc Edwards, you were asked to go in and look at the Flint water situation, what, almost a year ago by a family that lived there. What would you add to where the responsibility lies here?

MARC EDWARDS, Virginia Tech: Well, it’s very clear that Governor Snyder was guilty of not listening to the complaints of residents in Flint.

And he was guilty of being overly trusting of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA. And he’s accepted that blame. He called it his Katrina. And he also now wants to be part of the solution, but I think the thing that concerns me most is EPA’s testimony, which I find to be outrageous and Orwellian.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In what way?

MARC EDWARDS: Well, I mean, for example, they said the EPA whistle-blower’s memo that blew the lid off this back in July was inconclusive, when, in fact, it proved that the entire city was in danger.

EPA today claimed that they didn’t know if they could enforce federal law. EPA didn’t know if they could enforce federal law or not. They said also that they were strong-armed by the state. I mean, how can you be strong-armed by someone you’re supposed to be supervising? And even more outrageous is, they have claimed that they warned Flint residents in July that the water wasn’t safe to drink, when, in fact, when Virginia Tech, our team, tried to warn people in July, August and September that the water was unsafe, we had to fight the EPA.

EPA said nothing to back us up. So they are a major part of what went wrong in Flint, and for them to sit there and act like they have done nothing wrong is just, again, outrageous and Orwellian.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we should point out that we did invite the EPA to participate in the discussion tonight to come on for an interview, and they declined our request.

And this story goes on, but, for right now, David Shepardson, in Flint, the problem has gotten a little bit better, but it continues. Is that right?

DAVID SHEPARDSON: Right.

And there’s — so there’s two funding issues right now. The water is not yet safe to drink, and there are still — the EPA is still doing tests, and there are still many people who are forced to use bottled water for cooking and drinking.

But both the state — the governor has asked the state legislature to fund another $160 million over two years, and there’s another fight in Congress over whether the federal government should kick in about $220 million for Flint and other cities struggling with lead in pipes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All that to be resolved.

Professor Edwards, though, while we’re talking about this, we know that you have written that there are a number of older American cities that are confronting very similar problems to what Flint has experienced. Where are we talking about exactly in this country?

MARC EDWARDS: Well, you’re talking about all the major U.S. cities that have lead pipe, where it’s acknowledged that the example to meet intent of this rule, 70 percent of those cities would have to tell people that the water is unsafe.

So, we have been arguing this with EPA for 10 years, warning them that something like Flint was going to happen. And the only thing that’s really unusual here is that they got caught in Flint. A group of outsiders exposed that children were getting lead poisoning, even as MDQ and EPA were claiming the water’s safe.

To this day, EPA and MDQ have not admitted that the water broke federal law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of the rest of the country should be worrying about this?

MARC EDWARDS: Well, I think what you’re going to do is, when you start turning over rocks and looking for what’s going on with lead in drinking water in this country, something slimy is going to crawl out every time.

You’re seeing that in New Jersey now. You’re seeing it in Chicago, Philadelphia, Jackson. I mean, EPA has known about this problem for 10 years, and it’s done nothing. And we have been screaming at EPA to try to stop something like Flint from happening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say we, you mean you and those folks who are working with you on this?

MARC EDWARDS: Yes.

No, there were several us in Washington, D.C., who saw how this attitude of EPA that anything goes in terms of cheating on measuring lead in water, so that it looks low when you sample it, but it could be high when people are drinking the water, it was leaving — it’s left all Americans in harm’s way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dave Shepardson, how well-prepared are America’s cities, states and the EPA to deal with what apparently is a much bigger problem than anybody realized?

DAVID SHEPARDSON: It’s a staggering issue.

There are about 155,000 water systems the EPA enforces. The vast majority of states are the primary ones overseeing these water systems. And by the EPA’s estimate, over the next 20 years, the water infrastructure of the country needs at least $600 billion in investments.

So — and there have been numerous reports recently of the lead problems in Mississippi and Pennsylvania and throughout the country. And, as Mark said, clearly, Flint has cast attention on it, but it’s not just lead in water, but it’s also lead in paint and other sources. The lead issue for children across the country, it goes far beyond certainly Flint.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, to what extent is this an issue that is a priority before the Congress and the administration?

DAVID SHEPARDSON: Well, Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow was on the floor today complaining that they didn’t reach a deal before the Senate goes on a two-week recess, and there is going to be more fighting.

But remember that’s it’s also an issue in the presidential campaign, that both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have called for Governor Snyder to resign. And I do think the issue of infrastructure and funding for cities like Flint is going to continue to be an issue throughout the campaign season.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we certainly need to continue to watch this, and we will do that.

David Shepardson, we thank you.

And, Professor Marc Edwards at Virginia Tech, thank you.

DAVID SHEPARDSON: Thanks.

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