At Flint Hearings, "A Breathtaking Lack of Remorse"

March 16, 2016
Derrick Z. Jackson
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From left, Susan Hedman, Darnell Earley, Dayne Walling, and Marc Edwards are sworn in to testify at Tuesday's House hearing on the Flint water crisis. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

From left, Susan Hedman, Darnell Earley, Dayne Walling, and Marc Edwards are sworn in to testify at Tuesday’s House hearing on the Flint water crisis. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

In a rare bipartisan torrent of outrage, the former mayor of Flint, Michigan, the former special state-appointed emergency manager for the city, and the former regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency were eviscerated Tuesday at a House hearing for their alleged lack of action to protect children and residents in the infamous lead-water crisis. How did the task of providing clean water go so wrong?

The proceedings were so heated in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Georgia Republican Buddy Carter told former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, “There’s a special place in hell for actions like this.”

Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland said he “almost vomited” as he tore into former emergency manager Darnell Earley’s failure to be alarmed about Flint’s water. Earley said, “We were told our chemicals were hurting car parts, but not hurting humans.” Cummings shouted that a five-year-old could have found out the water was also hurting humans.

No member of either party spared Earley, Hedman or former Mayor Dayne Walling as the three frustrated the committee by pointing fingers at other agencies for letting people drink poisoned water for months. The most incredulous moment came when Hedman claimed, “I don’t think EPA did anything wrong.” Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech scientist who helped expose the dangerous levels of lead in the city’s water from the Flint River after it switched from the Detroit water system, said “EPA had everything to do with creating Flint.”

That likely sets the stage for an even more contentious hearing Thursday, when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder testify before the committee. In an op-ed in Tuesday’s Washington Post, McCarthy launched a new fusillade of blame toward Snyder, writing, “From day one, Michigan did not act as a partner. The state’s interactions with us were dismissive, misleading and unresponsive.”

But it is clear from Tuesday’s hearing that the EPA has questions to answer, too. The hearing centered on a preliminary report last June of high lead levels in Flint water by EPA scientist Miguel del Toral. But nearly another half-year passed before the city did anything. Del Toral wrote an email that hints he and his findings may have been suppressed. “It almost sounds like I’m to be stuck in a corner holding up a potted plant.”

Del Toral also wrote another email, three months after his preliminary report, fretting, “At every stage of this process, it seems that we spend more time trying to maintain state/local relationships than we do trying to protect the children.”

That deference to state authorities seems to be at the heart of EPA’s failure to act. Despite clear scientific evidence, it seems that Hedman shied away from questioning state officials. But the EPA’s job should be enforcing the law and protecting public health and safety, not just avoiding conflicts with state agencies. The political pressure for the EPA to defer to states is part of the problem—and that comes as much from Congress as from anywhere.

It seems that, at every level, public officials were worried about money, perception, and turf, instead of what really matters. The voices of Flint community members, backed up by strong scientific evidence, were clearly left out. That’s a serious breakdown of the role science should play in a democracy, and it’s done real damage to human lives and to public trust.

Edwards, for one, is even more outraged by these failures than ever. After the hearing, he said, “I was dumbfounded.  I couldn’t believe my ears. The lack of remorse is breathtaking. We all screw up in life but from EPA, there is no ‘I’m sorry,’ no learning. Like anybody, I want an effective EPA, but they keep shooting themselves in the foot. “

On Thursday, McCarthy will get a chance to weigh in. In her Post column, McCarthy said, “It is tragic that it took a disaster of this scale for this issue to get the attention it deserves.” But it remains a very open question as to how much attention the EPA, outside of del Toral, gave the poisoned water of Flint.

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Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a 10-time award winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, a 2-time winner from the Education Writers Association, a commentary winner from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and co-winner of Columbia University's Meyer Berger Award