'The most critical witness of all' was notably absent from a heated hearing on the poisoning of Flint, Michigan

In a seemingly never-ending blame game, members of Congress grilled federal and state officials Wednesday on their roles in the crisis over lead-tainted water that recently engulfed the already-struggling city of Flint, Michigan.

“This is a failing at every level,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said at the hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“We’re not some Third World country where you get 100,000 people poisoned,” he added. “Poisoned!”

He added he couldn’t possibly express how his family would handle the situation if their water had been poisoned. That’s exactly what happened in Flint after a corrosion control — that would have cost $100 per day — wasn’t added to the water supply to counteract the corrosive water that was leaching lead from the city’s ageing pipe system.

“We can’t let this happen. It never should have happened in the first place,” Chaffetz said. “The public has a right to be outraged. Outrage doesn’t even begin to cover it.”

Flint Water CrisisBill Pugliano/Getty ImagesFlint residents have been drinking bottled water.

Joel Beauvais, acting deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Water, and Keith Creagh, director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, were the two witnesses under fire for their department’s handling of the crisis.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was not asked to testify and was not present at the hearing.

“We are missing the most critical witness of all: the governor of the state of Michigan,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D — Maryland) said.

But the state Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) — which has taken the brunt of the blame for not requiring Flint to have corrosion control which could have kept lead from leaching from old service pipes — has pointed a finger of blame back at EPA as well, saying the agency kept the state waiting months for a legal opinion about whether such corrosion control was required.

In prepared statements, Creagh wrote the MDEQ — which has taken most of the blame for failing to use corrosion control — and EPA exchanged emails and had conference calls between February and September about whether that $100-per-day corrosion control was legally required. He wrote that the EPA failed to provide that legal opinion until last November.

In Beauvais’ statement, he wrote that MDEQ “incorrectly advised the city of Flint that corrosion control treatment was not necessary,” leading to the disaster.

“EPA regional staff urged MDEQ to address the lack of corrosion control, but was met with resistance,” he added. “The delays in implementing the actions needed to treat the drinking water and in informing the public of ongoing health risks raise very serious concerns.”
Marc Edwards — the Virginia Tech researcher who ran tests proving Flint’s water was contaminated last summer — said the corrosion plan, if implemented, would have led to the disaster being completely avoided. The problem started with someone at the state or local level who “simply forgot to follow the law,” according to Edwards.

But he also cast blame on the EPA, saying it turned “a blind eye” on communities who aren’t following the federal Lead and Copper Rule, the nationwide standard for safe levels of lead and copper in water.

“The only thing I can conclude is that they don’t care,” he said.

Cummings questioned whether people in Flint are still paying for water the state still can’t guarantee is safe to use.

Creagh said he cannot speak to the billing since it’s a city issue, but that he respected the question because “everyone deserves safe drinking water.”

“I don’t care whether it’s EPA, whether it’s local, whether it’s state — I want everybody who is responsible for this fiasco to be held accountable,” Cummings said. “I’m not protecting anybody, because that’s not our job. We are the last line of defence. And if we don’t do it, nobody is going to do it.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington DC) questioned Beauvais about whether the EPA was monitoring “pre-flushing” in its studies of Flint water. Pre-flushing means the lead is being removed from the water before it is tested.

“That is a deliberate, close-to-criminal act,” she said.

Beauvais couldn’t confirm whether there was sufficient monitoring of EPA officials pre-flushing the water, although he said there are rules in place against the practice.

“So the answer is no,” Norton said. “They could be pre-flushing, because nobody is looking to see whether pre-flushing is happening.”

The problems in Flint began after the city’s state-appointed emergency manager switched off of Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River in April 2014. The state was aware of alleged problems with the water as the switch was made, but dispelled them as “myths.” The Flint River contained more corrosive water, which led to lead from an ageing pipe system being leached into the water as it ran through.

Roughly a year and a half after the switch, Snyder’s administration began taking action last October.

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