House lawmakers unleashed their frustration Thursday with state and federal leaders they say are trying to spread -- if not unload -- the blame for the Flint water crisis, as its impoverished community remains without clean running water to this day.
“There are people in Flint, Michigan who are waking up today who cannot use the water. They can’t drink the water, they can’t take a shower. I can’t imagine my family going through that,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of House Government Oversight Committee, which held its second hearing on the matter this week.
He spoke as Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the two officials at the center of the controversy, testified and faced a grilling from both sides of the aisle -- even calls for their resignation.
In his opening statement, Snyder said inefficient and ineffective bureaucrats at the EPA, in part, allowed the Flint water crisis to happen and continue.
In her testimony, McCarthy argued Michigan caused the problem, claiming EPA got confusing and inaccurate information from the state.
Both acknowledged some responsibility on their end as well. But lawmakers voiced frustration with the two witnesses.
Chaffetz went so far as to call for McCarthy to resign.
And he said there must be a full accounting of whether the Environmental Protection Agency at the regional level deliberately forestalled action when they knew the water was poisoned, as growing evidence has suggested.
And after Sydner, a Republican, insisted he could not provide specifics about how quickly he responded to the Flint mayor’s calls for help in 2015, or whether he knew of the well-publicized health problems there -- including e-coli, Legionnaires disease, and rashes -- Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-PA., appeared to boil over.
“You were not in a medically induced coma for a year,” he told Synder, the hearing's audience beginning to chuckle. “I have had enough of your phony contrition … dripping in guilt, withdrawing your paycheck, hiring lawyers. Doing your dead-level best to spread accountability to others. It isn’t appropriate.”
“Soon we will have husbands beating their wives and saying 'I’m sorry, it is a failure at all levels,'” said Cartwright. “You need to resign, too, governor.”
Flint switched its water source from Detroit's water system to the Flint River in 2014 to save money, but the river water was not treated properly and lead from aging pipes leached into Flint homes and businesses. Elevated levels of lead have been found in children's blood. Lead contamination has been linked to learning disabilities and other problems.
Emails, documents and hearings have indicated that the state knew much earlier that there were problems with the water and that pleas from the city that people were getting sick went unanswered. The EPA, which has oversight responsibility under the Clean Water Act, has been cited for not acting sooner and forcing out a whistleblower, EPA Region 5 Manager Miquel Del Toral, who brought the water problems to light as early as February 2015.
Chaffetz displayed, again, a memo by Regional Administrator, Susan Hedman, who resigned amid the growing crisis in January. The memo between EPA officials included one employee saying, "Perhaps she already knows all this but I'm not so sure Flint is the community we want to go out on a limb for." The memo had produced audible gasps from the audience at the earlier hearing this week, and on Tuesday Chaffetz said this was indicative of the callousness with which the people of Flint were being treated.
“It’ one of the most offensive and disconcerting things I’ve seen,” he said.
Ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-MI, blasted the governor, raising the specter of lead-poisoned, brain-damaged, children.
“People all around the governor were sounding the alarms, but he either ignored them or didn't hear them," Cummings said, citing emails showing that Snyder's top legal adviser warned in October 2014 that Flint should "get back on the Detroit (water) system" as soon as possible "before this thing gets too far out of control."
The warning came a year before Snyder says he became aware of the lead contamination on Oct. 1, 2015.
“There will be an entire generation of children who suffer from brain damage, learning disabilities and many horrible effects of lead poisoning afflicted upon them by Governor Synder’s administration,” he said. “They will be sitting in third grade and not able to read the words ‘see spot run’ and know what it is because there is lead running in their veins.”
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., used his time to go after McCarthy, putting her on the defensive over not holding more people accountable in Region 5, particularly Hedman, who he said was “getting vacation time bonuses while the kids were getting poisoned.”
“You never fired anyone,” he said. “Mr. Del Toral should get a congressional gold medal.”
“They (EPA) didn’t act, they gagged Mr. Del Toral,” he continued, waving the June 2015 memo Del Toral wrote warning about high lead levels in Flint. “A high school student could take his report and determine these kids were being poisoned.”
McCarthy said the state Department of Environmental Quality were the ones to push back on the mounting crisis, had assured the federal agency that the memo was not conclusive at the time, and “slow-walked everything they needed to do, precluding us from jumping in.”
“We were strong armed, we were kept at arm’s length, we could not do our job effectively,” she said, noting that the state people bad mouthed Del Toro and “told everyone outside he was a rogue employee. “Miquel Del Toral is a hero.”
For his part, Snyder said he took immediate action after learning that Flint's water was contaminated. He reconnected the city with Detroit's water supply, distributed water filters and began testing residents -- especially children -- for elevated lead levels, Snyder said.
"Not a day or night goes by that this tragedy doesn't weigh on my mind -- the questions I should have asked, the answers I should have demanded," Snyder said.
A state investigation has "uncovered systemic failures" at the state DEQ, Snyder says. "The fact is, bureaucrats created a culture that valued technical compliance over common sense -- and the result was that lead was leaching into residents' water."
In response to the crisis, the state has approved $67 million in emergency spending, with a request for $165 million more, Snyder said. The governor called for Congress to approve a bipartisan bill that would spend $220 million to fix and replace lead-contaminated pipes in Flint and other cities. Senators from both parties have reached a tentative agreement, but the bill remains on hold amid objections by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.