WASHINGTON—There was much partisan heat generated, but very little light shed, when Gov. Rick Snyder and U.S. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy appeared recently before a congressional committee to answer questions about their roles in the Flint water crisis.
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee vigorously hammered Snyder and Republicans skewered McCarthy last week as both heard calls for their resignations because a city of 100,000 people had its water supply contaminated with lead while under their watch.
Snyder, while accepting responsibility, blamed career bureaucrats for failing to use common sense and the EPA for failing to step in to, essentially, overcome the dangerous decisions and cover-ups coming out of a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality run by one of the governor’s appointees.
McCarthy, an Obama appointee, repeatedly refused to admit any wrongdoing whatsoever on the part of the EPA. The best she could do was say that the agency could have been more aggressive in its oversight of the MDEQ and acted more quickly when problems with Flint’s water problems first emerged after the state switched water sources from the Detroit system to the highly corrosive Flint River in April 2014.
Watching the proceedings on a monitor in an overflow room and unconstrained by the decorum imposed on those inside the hearing, some of the more than 150 Flint residents who rode to D.C. on three buses cheered the tongue lashings and howled with derision at some of the defensive responses offered up by both Snyder and McCarthy.
There was much intense political theater, to be sure.
Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) pointing out the warnings raised by outside experts and the red flags raised by Snyder’s inner circle, refused to swallow Snyder’s claim that he didn’t know about the crisis until receiving a briefing last autumn, nearly 18 months after the switch.
"Plausible deniability only works when it's plausible," Cartwright said, "And I'm not buying that you didn't know any of this until October 2015. You were not in a medically induced coma for a year. And I've had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies."
And there was no small amount of irony as Republicans, who seemingly never tire of attacking the EPA for pursuing what’s typically characterized as job-killing regulatory overreach, called upon McCarthy to resign because of her agency’s failure to react quickly and forcefully enough.
Snyder, after having claimed there was nothing to be gained by finger pointing, joined in the bashing – even though it was his MDEQ that helped delay action on the problem by falsely claiming to the EPA that it had a corrosion control program in place when the feds first started asking questions about high levels of lead in Flint’s water last February.
The governor, for the first time, was forced to address the role PA 436 – the Michigan emergency manager law championed by Snyder – played in the crisis.
Asked by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) if emergency management failed in Flint, Snyder responded:
"In this particular case, with respect to the water issue, that would be a fair conclusion."
In a press conference after the hearing, Flint’s Bishop Bernadel Jefferson went even further, citing the anti-democratic emergency manager law and its advocates as the root cause of the crisis.
“Who is to blame?” asked Jefferson. “PA 436 is. They took our voice away.”
For those interested in more than theatrics, though, the hearings were surely a disappointment. With representatives from both sides of the aisle seemingly more interested in posturing and scoring political points than in uncovering new information, little was actually accomplished in terms of providing new revelations.
Heated rhetoric is one thing. Cold facts are another.
But the hearings won’t be the last word on this scandal.
The task force appointed by Snyder to investigate the causes of the Flint water crisis has yet to issue its final report. There are also criminal investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office that are under way.
The whole truth has yet to be revealed.
The continued investigations are crucial.
At this point it is less about assigning blame and more about determining culpability and motive.
The press conference held by Flint residents captured what the partisan assaults from committee members and the bloodless, carefully crafted responses did not: the total hell the people of Flint have been going through for almost two years.
Forced to use poisoned water. Dismissed when they complained. Getting sick in multiple ways. Dying from Legionnaires’ disease. Children sustaining irreversible neurological damage. Women suffering miscarriages. Living month after month after month on bottled water. Watching the grades of their kids drop. Struggling to pay medical bills. All the psychological stress of being sick and deceived and dreading what the future might hold. And still getting water bills, for water they can’t cook with or drink. Injury upon injury upon injury all topped with insult.
The people of Flint don’t care about scoring partisan points this ongoing horror story.
What they want is real help, now and into the future.
That means funding to immediately replace all the city’s lead infrastructure.
But that’s just the start.
Increased school and wrap-around services for all Flint children must also begin immediately.
As for the long term, some attempted tabulation of the health and education costs for a generation of lead-poisoned kids must be done so that the state can get to work creating a fund to pay for decades of services.
If there is one thing Thursday’s hearing did conclusively establish, it is this: The primary culprit in this disaster is the state of Michigan. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and a city government under the complete control of Snyder’s appointed managers are directly responsible for delivering poisoned water to the people of Flint, and then falsely claiming it was safe.
The address of immediate needs and the absolute assurance future care will be funded were two of the things flint residents bused down to Washington to demand.
The other was justice.
They are still waiting to see what it looks like.
"If there is one thing Thursday’s hearing did conclusively establish, it is this: The primary culprit in this disaster is the state of Michigan."