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Congressional hearing: No one accepts blame for Flint water crisis, lawmaker calls testimony “sickening”

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FLINT, Michigan -- Residents in Flint, Michigan, want to hear answers, but they continue to get the blame game.

State, city and federal officials, all seated next to each other testifying before Congress Tuesday over the water crisis, spent their time finger-pointing, while claiming to have themselves acted responsibly.

None accepted any blame for the 18 months that corrosive water was eating away at pipes, causing high levels of bacteria, carcinogens and lead to taint the water and poison the people.

Each one claimed they were unjustly criticized, while claiming to have had Flint residents in mind.

'Sickening'

It was enough to make Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, call all the deflection "sickening."

Government failed Flint at all levels, but the actions of a former director of the Environmental Protection Agency was the panel's focal point.

And the disbelief at the actions of the Environmental Protection Agency was bipartisan.

"There's a special place in hell for actions like this," said Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Georgia.

Former EPA director for that region, Susan Hedman, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and former Michigan emergency manager Darnell Earley -- in charge of decisions in Flint during that time -- all testified Tuesday, but each denied responsibility.

Asked by Rep. Jason Chaffetz -- the committee chairman -- if anyone at the EPA did anything wrong, Hedman replied: "I don't believe anyone at the EPA did anything wrong, but I do believe we could have done more."

Two other members of the committee re-asked the question, reminding Hedman that she was under oath when pushing for an answer.

"We could have done more," she repeated, an answer which was met with groans from the gallery.

Cummings told Hedman: "I'm glad you resigned."

The evidence

Despite all the testimony, the most telling answers continue to come from documents.

In an email dated September 22, EPA scientist Miguel Del Toral wrote: "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 children."

Hedman, Earley and Walling all blamed each other.

In her first public statement since resigning over this crisis in February, Hedman said her resignation was the "honorable" thing to do as a public servant, her voice breaking with emotion when she shared that she has not stopped worrying about the people in Flint.

But she was immediately met with a harsh reality check from Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards.

Edwards, who testified after her, told the panel that Hedman had acted with "willful blindness ... to the pain and suffering of Flint residents, unremorseful for their role in causing this manmade disaster and completely unrepentant and unable to learn from their mistakes."

Edwards is a world-leading researcher of lead in drinking water and was the first to publicly announce high levels of lead in the Flint water -- months before government officials admitted it publicly.

"Ms. Hedman said the EPA had nothing to do with creating Flint, (but) the EPA had everything to do with creating Flint," Edwards said, telling the committee that a "common landlord" who acted the way the EPA acted would have been prosecuted for allowing residents to be exposed to such high levels of lead.

"Hedman at every step aided and abetted and emboldened the unethical behavior," he said. "I guess being a government agency means you never have to say your sorry."

Previously released emails show that the EPA waited seven months from the time that Del Toral wrote a draft report warning them of lead in water problems in Flint before issuing an emergency order. It was 11 months after first seeing elevated lead levels from a concerned mother, LeeAnne Walters, who had reached out to the EPA after failing to get help from the state.

No help

But little help came.

Hedman said she provided some experts to the city, but the EPA did not issue an emergency until January 2016, long after the crisis became public and after the city's drinking water supply was switched back to a safer source.

Meanwhile, emails show that her staff was communicating with the state regularly exchanging information.

Hedman rejected the notion that Del Toral is anything except a "valued" employee, but Edwards told lawmakers that he was silenced -- told not to talk to the residents of Flint, and not to talk about the water in Flint.

Edwards also said officials within the state of Michigan felt "emboldened" to say that Del Toral had been "handled" after he released a memo warning of high lead levels in Flint.

At the state level, officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) were not abiding by a federal regulation called the Lead and Copper Rule, which is supposed to stop corrosion like this from happening to pipes.

Emails show that at one point, the MDEQ assured the EPA it had optimal corrosion control, though it had no corrosion control program. Other documents show lead testing results were altered. Documents also show that the switch to the Flint River was made hastily and ignored several reports that recommended against it.

There was also a lack of concern by many state officials over the severity of the rashes and bacterial problems with the water in 2014, even before lead was a known problem.

Internal tug-of-war

Emails show there was an internal tug-of-war at the Gov. Rick Snyder's office over how to handle the residents' complaints.

When General Motors in Flint stopped using the water because newly manufactured parts were rusting, Earley testified he didn't see that as a problem.

"I almost vomited when I heard you say something a moment ago ... You don't have to be a water treatment expert, a five year old could figure that out," Cummings said.

Earley, the state emergency manager at the time, declined the Flint City Council and Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's request to switch the water back at the beginning of 2015.

But he told the committee that he had family in Flint, has attended church services there and blamed "experts" who he said misled him in his decision making.

Costs

Cummings pointed out that switching back was expensive, and it had been a directive from the governor's office to the emergency managers during the crisis that "the top priority was to cut spending. Everything else was viewed through the lens of a cost cutting."

Walling, the former mayor, had no decision-making authority during the crisis, but followed state and federal officials claims that water was safe.

Chaffetz opened the hearing by playing a video of Walling on the news drinking the water in 2015 and telling people it was safe.

The hearings continue on Thursday, with much-anticipated testimony from Snyder.

Cummings said that as part of the investigation, he interviewed Snyder's former head of the MDEQ who told him, "Despite all the public outrage, the topic of Flint water was never raised in any cabinet meeting."

Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pennsylvania, when questioning Earley, pointed out that Snyder both promoted him and gave him a raise, sending him to the fix the city of Detroit's public schools after his time in Flint.

Snyder has since apologized for the ordeal, but has rebuffed calls for his resignation.

Meanwhile, Senator Tammy Baldwin has proposed legislation to speed up the development of new water technologies to ensure problems like what has happened in Flint don't happen again.

New legislation introduced Monday by U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin received strong support from The Water Council, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

“The time has come where we as a nation have to face up to the reality that we have some very pressing issues with respect to the water resources that we use to keep our manufacturers operating and our citizens safe,” stated Dean Amhaus, President and CEO of The Water Council.  “Senator Baldwin’s proposed legislation will be an important and critical step in fostering new, innovative procedures and products in the marketplace and in communities that would help address these tremendous national challenges.”

Examples of Water Technologies being developed in partnership with the Water Council:

  • Sensors that can be installed at the end of a faucet to alert the user when the water coming out of the tap is dangerous.
  • New treatment strategies to capture phosphorous in the waste treatment process, which could provide new options to the many treatment facilities that are considering installing expensive new filters, or for agriculture waste treatment.
  • New tools that will help cities monitor their water and wastewater pipes more easily, to help detect sources of contamination and protect water supplies.

"We applaud Senator Baldwin's bill which promotes a needed focus on the development of innovative water technologies. The Milwaukee region has for years been fostering the development of energy efficiencies in water treatment, resource recovery, and green infrastructure through partnerships between the City of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and The Water Council. These efforts have helped Milwaukee take a lead nationally and internationally in promoting water technology for the 21st Century,” said Kevin Shafer, Executive Director, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. 

The United States is facing enormous infrastructure maintenance and investment costs for the water infrastructure we depend on to deliver safe drinking water and safely treat wastewater.  The American Water Works Association estimates that in the next 25 years, investment costs are more than a billion dollars to keep our water system functioning properly, and to avoid costly and hazardous pipe breaks.  Estimated costs for wastewater treatment systems are even higher.  As communities consider how to keep residents safe in the most effective way, they need new strategies—from innovations in water technology—that can help reduce these substantial costs.

"The clean water sector is moving rapidly toward transforming itself into a resource recovery sector that recycles nutrients, recovers water for reuse, brings cutting-edge research and innovative technology to the market to create jobs and economic growth. Senator Baldwin’s bill will help accelerate this transformation to the Utility of the Future. NACWA applauds Senator Baldwin’s leadership and is pleased to support this legislation,”

Senator Baldwin’s Water Technology Acceleration Act would accelerate the development and deployment of water technologies to solve our most pressing water challenges, including lead safety, phosphorous reduction, and treatment of bacteria and nitrates.

“In Wisconsin, we are leading the development of these new solutions. The Water Council and its partners—from our research labs to the many companies in our region—are doing incredible work to find innovative new ways to better test, monitor, treat, and deliver water,” Senator Baldwin said. “We need to strongly support this work because their innovation will change how communities respond to water crises, improve public health, and help us address water scarcity.”

Senator Baldwin’s reforms would create a federal role for accelerating the testing, deployment and encouraging the commercialization of technologies, including pipes with smart sensors that can tell you when water is contaminated or when water pressure is dropping. The legislation would also help accelerate technologies to address livestock waste treatment systems, green infrastructure, and updated stream gauges, which can help reduce the costs of variety of water problems, such as upgrading water infrastructure and treating manure that runs into surface waters.

Senator Baldwin’s Water Technology Acceleration Act: 

  • Creates the Innovative Water Technology Grant Program: These grants would fund public-private partnerships that deploy, test and improve emerging water technologies.  Grants could be used to address water quality issues, such as new real-time sensors that can alert users when tap water is contaminated, improvements to residential filtration technologies that address groundwater contamination, and piloting of technologies that treat manure on farms. 
  • Supports Communities to use Innovative Technologies to address Drinking Water challenges: The bill would help communities deploy innovative technologies to address their drinking water challenges.  Many communities face threats to the quality of their drinking water sources, and this bill would help them pilot solutions they would not otherwise have the ability to deploy.  It would also help them to provide better information to residents, so that families can have certainty every time they turn on the water that the water coming from their tap is safe.  The bill would require EPA to evaluate the barriers to greater adoption of updated water technology, and provide technical assistance to help communities use new technologies successfully piloted elsewhere. 
  • Supports Communities to use Innovative Technologies to address wastewater and storm runoff challenges: The bill would also support communities to pilot new approaches to wastewater treatment and storm runoff.  Many communities face enormous costs to updating their systems to meet water treatment requirements.  Water technologies can help reduce those costs to ratepayers by focusing investments on new approaches that achieve the same water quality improvements and may have additional benefits to the community and ecosystem.  For instance, green infrastructure projects such as rain gardens and porous pavement can reduce the need for additional storm water storage structures, and also result in cleaner water as the storm water is better filtered before it drains into our rivers and lakes. The bill would require EPA to evaluate the barriers to greater adoption of updated water technology, and provide technical assistance to help communities use new technologies successfully piloted elsewhere.
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