House panel calls governor, EPA chief to testify on Flint

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Tuesday it was joining a criminal investigation of lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, exploring whether laws were broken in a crisis that has captured international attention. Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has captured international attention. Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

WASHINGTON — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said Friday he has agreed to testify to Congress about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, bowing to demands by Democrats that the Republican governor explain his role in a cost-cutting move that resulted in a public health emergency caused by lead-contaminated water.

Snyder said he wants to explain how “the local, state and federal governments combined to fail the people of Flint” and actions he is recommending in Michigan and at the federal level to ensure a similar crisis does not happen again.

“The people of Flint have suffered because they were failed by all levels of government, and so it is understandable that there are questions at all levels of government,” he said in a statement. “In Michigan we are learning a great deal from this crisis and I am hopeful the federal government also will use this as an opportunity to examine health and safety protections in place, assess infrastructure needs and avoid this type of crisis in the future.”

Flint’s water became tainted when the city switched from the Detroit system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The impoverished city was under state management at the time.

State regulators failed to ensure that water was properly treated, and lead from aging pipes leached into the water supply. Some children’s blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems.

The Flint crisis has become a partisan flashpoint nationally as Democrats cite Flint’s problems as an example of Republican cost-cutting run amok and the logical outgrowth of GOP efforts to weaken government regulation. Democrats also call Flint an example of environmental injustice. Flint is majority African-American and more than 40 percent of its residents live in poverty.

Republicans dispute the notion that race or poverty played a role in the crisis and point to a lack of action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which did not warn the public for months after learning about elevated lead levels in Flint.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Friday he invited Snyder and EPA chief Gina McCarthy to testify on the Flint crisis. No date for the hearing has been set, but a committee spokeswoman said the session is likely next month.

Chaffetz said in a statement that he appreciates Snyder’s willingness to appear before the committee and looks forward to McCarthy’s testimony. Snyder and McCarthy both offer important perspectives “as we seek to ensure a crisis of this magnitude never occurs in another American city,” Chaffetz said.

An EPA spokeswoman declined immediate comment on whether McCarthy would accept the invitation.

Democrats have complained that GOP leaders in Congress were reluctant to call Snyder to testify, despite multiple requests by Democrats to invite him. Snyder rejected a request to appear at an informational hearing held by House Democrats earlier this week.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., said he was glad Snyder had finally agreed to discuss the matter under oath.

“The governor’s administration and his state-appointed emergency financial managers created this crisis and he must answer questions so the whole truth can be found,” Kildee said. “Flint families deserve answers.”

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., said she expects Snyder to “provide a complete account of how the poisoning of an entire city was allowed to occur,” adding that questions about what happened in Flint “have gone unanswered for far too long.”

Chaffetz said he also has called Susan Hedman, the EPA’s former Midwest region chief, and Darnell Earley, who was the emergency manager for Flint when the water source was changed. Former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling also has been invited, as well as Miguel Del Toral, an EPA water expert who wrote a June 2015 memo about lead problems in Flint that was not made public for months.

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