Former federal and local officials today blamed one another for the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, during a tense congressional hearing where angry lawmakers described what they called a failure at all levels of government to protect the city’s residents.
Susan Hedman, a former EPA official who was in charge of the Midwest region, testified that her agency was "limited" under the law in its ability to respond to the crisis, and that the relevant state agency was "slow to deliver" on a plan to address the lead contamination of Flint’s water supply.
Appearing before the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee, Hedman choked up as she talked about resigning from her post in January due to "false allegations" that she downplayed the severity of crisis and sat on the sidelines as the problem worsened.
"I still think resigning was the honorable thing to do," Hedman said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and chairman of the oversight panel, said that what happened in Flint "was totally avoidable."
"It’s almost unbelievable how many bad decisions have been made," he said.
While Chaffetz said there is plenty of blame to go around, he directed his sharpest criticism at the EPA.
The chairman pointed to an internal agency memo that showed officials didn't think "Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for" while residents drank lead-contaminated water.
Flint switched its water source from Detroit's system to the Flint River in 2014 as a cost-cutting measure, but the river water was not treated properly for erosion and lead from aging pipes leached into Flint’s water supply, leading to a public health crisis in the city.
State and local officials who testified today also sought to deflect blame.
Darnell Earley, the state-appointed emergency manager who oversaw the city when its water source was switched, told lawmakers he was "grossly misled by the experts" at the state and federal level who never told him that lead was leaching into the city's water supply.
"We followed the guidelines based on the information we were given," Earley said. "In relying on experts, the solutions I oversaw failed to ameliorate the troubles plaguing Flint's water."
The finger-pointing by the former officials was not well received by lawmakers and an outside expert involved in helping the city recover took particular umbrage at Hedman’s comments.
"The EPA had everything to do with creating Flint," Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards, who helped discover the contamination, told lawmakers. At one point, he raised his voice saying: "She did nothing to protect Flint’s children! Nothing!"
On Thursday, the panel is scheduled to hear from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.