WASHINGTON — A Virginia Tech professor Wednesday urged a key congressional panel opening an investigation into the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to hold the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accountable for its failures to protect children from lead poisoning in public water supplies.
“I am really begging you to do what we didn’t do the last two times I have appeared before this committee, which is to fix the EPA lead and copper rule and to fix the U.S. EPA,” said Marc Edwards, a municipal water expert and professor of civil engineering.
Edwards and a team of researchers at Virginia Tech last year traveled to Flint and conducted testing of its water that found unsafe levels of lead and challenged assertions from officials that the city’s water was safe.
Calling the situation Orwellian for residents of Flint, Edwards testified, “I am personally shamed that the profession I belong to, the drinking water industry in this country, has allowed this to occur.”
The House committee probe started Wednesday with its chairman issuing a pair of subpoenas to force depositions from a regional Environmental Protection Agency official and the state-appointed emergency manager in charge when problems with lead contamination first surfaced.
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, accused the two officials of not being cooperative and was particularly critical of Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, whose lawyer declined to accept an earlier subpoena seeking his testimony before the panel.
“We’re calling on the U.S. Marshals to hunt him down and give him that subpoena,” he said at a hearing, sparking a round of applause. Participation before the oversight committee “is not optional,” he noted, adding that when people are invited, “you show up.”
A subpoena is also being issued for Susan Hedman, the EPA’s former region 5 administrator, which oversees Flint. She has been criticized for trying to keep the contamination crisis under wraps — criticism Chaffetz appeared to echo by reading from several emails between EPA and state officials.
Democrats on the committee accused Republicans of playing politics with the crisis, by refusing to compel similar testimony from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and officials he tapped to run Flint.
“We are missing the most critical witness of all,” said ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., referring to the Republican governor and presenting Chaffetz with a letter from committee Democrats demanding he organize another hearing featuring Snyder and former Flint emergency managers. “If we act selectively for political reasons then we become a part of the problem.”
Congress is investigating the Flint water contamination crisis in the wake of a national outcry over revelations that lead in drinking water hit extremely high levels after the city switched its water source in April 2014 from Detroit’s water system to the local Flint River. The river water proved highly corrosive to the city’s lead pipes, leading to health problems in the city, especially among children.
Chaffetz said he planned to scrutinize officials at every level.
“I’m disappointed in the response at the local level, at the state level and at the federal level,” he said. “This is a failing at every level.”
Joel Beauvais, acting water chief for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Michigan officials ignored federal advice to treat Flint water for corrosion-causing elements last year and delayed for months before telling the public about the health risks of lead-contaminated water.
“What happened in Flint was avoidable and never should have happened,” Beauvais said.
EPA’s Midwest regional office urged Michigan’s environmental agency to address the lack of corrosion control in Flint’s water, “but was met with resistance,” Beauvais told the House committee. “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.”
Countering the Obama administration official, Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, acknowledged that the state should have required Flint to treat its water, but said the EPA “did not display the sense of urgency that the situation demanded,” allowing the problem to fester for months.
Creagh apologized for the state’s role in the water crisis, but said, “in retrospect, government at all levels should have done more.”
Democrats said they supported Chaffetz’s decision to hold the EPA to task, but warned that responsibility for the crisis should lie primarily with the state government.
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., a native of Flint, argued that the committee should push Michigan to “make it right for the people of Flint” — not simply by assigning blame, but by ensuring there are resources to fix the city’s water infrastructure and provide care for the children who were poisoned by the lead in the water.
Senators are currently wrestling with an amendment that would provide $600 million in emergency spending to Flint, $400 million of which would only be made available if Michigan matches the money, dollar-for-dollar.
Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats, filed the amendment to an energy bill currently being considered on the Senate floor, but Republicans are insisting that any additional spending be offset.
Kildee argued Wednesday that Michigan should be shouldering the cost of remedying the situation.
Other lawmakers suggested Congress should find money to help families beyond Flint, noting that other cities have grappled with water contamination crises.
“We should set aside a fund or whatever, because we should make certain these kids are being taken care of,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., recalling the discovery of lead in Washington, D.C.’s water supply a decade ago. Virginia Tech’s Edwards was part of that investigation, too.
The initial decision to change Flint’s water source was done to save money while the city was facing economic troubles.
Experts testifying before the committee said the city could have avoided the crisis by adding phosphates to the water supply when they switched water sources, as legally required. This would have cost $80 to $100 a day, they said.
“In general, corrosion control, for every dollar you spend on it, you save $10,” Edwards testified. “But in Flint’s situation, every dollar you spend on it, you would have saved $1,000.”
These numbers struck a chord with lawmakers.
“For that much money, we poisoned the kids in Flint, didn’t we,” Mica said.
State officials testifying before the committee admitted more should have been done.
“It’s highly unusual across this country to go from one water source to another. And so the rigor should have been more when the water source changed,” said Creagh with the Michigan DEQ, agreeing with lawmakers that the crisis could have been avoided.
“We were minimalistic and legalistic in our behavior,” Creagh said.
Creagh added that he could not guarantee at this time the water in Flint was safe to drink.
The Associated Press and The Roanoke Times contributed to this report.